Tag Archive: biographies


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.

alice waters and the trip to delicious

Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Hayelin Choi

A follow-up to Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, Martin continues to focus on food creators in this new book about Alice Waters.  It follows Waters from her studies in France where she learned about food.  When she returned home, she wanted to share her food finds with her friends but her home was too small to accommodate all of them.  So she created a new kind of restaurant that was like eating in someone’s home, Chez: Panisse.  The book follows Waters on her quest to find fresh, locally-grown foods and produce.  It finishes with her focus on children learning to grow their own foods in schoolyards across the country.  This is a picture book biography that will inspire young readers to grow, eat, and discover their own trip to delicious.

Martin’s text reads as verse on the page, the stanzas unrhymed but spare and filled with moments in Waters’ life that are worth lingering over.  Martin explains in simple terms what the goals of Waters are, but she also manages to inspire and let the ideas soar upwards on the page.  She invites young readers to dream their own dreams, offering them a book about how one person accomplished theirs. 

Choi’s art has a great feel to it with a mix of bright colors and a strong organic feel that is entirely appropriate to Waters.  Throughout the illustrations, readers will see how important people are to Waters’ accomplishments from her friends to her team at the restaurants to the children who plant their school gardens. 

A dynamic and delicious look at the life of Alice Waters, filled with all of the mouth-watering moments of her life.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from ARC received from Readers to Eaters.

edward hopper paints his world

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Released August 19, 2014.

Even as a child, Edward Hopper lived as an artist.  He spent his days drawing as much as he could, preferring drawing to playing baseball with the other boys.  After high school, he headed off to New York City to study art.  Then Hopper went to Paris to learn even more, spending time painting outside.  When he returned to the US, he got a job as an illustrator for magazines, but wanted to spend time painting what he wanted to, not for others.  He started painting old houses in his work and after getting married he spent time wandering the countryside on Cape Cod, finding scenes that moved him and they weren’t the typical images of gardens and farms.  He also painted things in the city that spoke to him.  Eventually the critics and galleries discovered Hopper and he gained attention, but it didn’t change him, even his final work speaks to his unique vision and approach.

Burleigh has written a book about an important American painter but even more than that, he has captured the small things that made him great.  The book speaks to the importance of allowing yourself time to learn a craft and getting an education.  It also speaks to staying true to yourself and your vision whether it is accepted at the time or not.  And then there is the importance of perseverance and following your dream even if it doesn’t make a lot of money.  Hopper teaches all of this in his quiet way.

Minor’s artwork shines in this picture book.  He brilliantly captures the feel of Hopper’s work without copying it directly but these images are also clearly Minor’s own as well.  Pictures of some of Hopper’s most famous work is shared at the end of the book and it is there that one realizes what a profound mix of two artists’ work has happened here.

A very strong addition to the growing collection of picture book biographies about artists, this book has much to offer budding young artists as well as art classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from ARC received from Wendell Minor.

scraps

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert

This nonfiction picture book allows readers a glimpse into Ehlert’s creative process as well as her personal history.  The book begins with a very young Ehlert and how she was raised by parents who enjoyed making things with their hands.  She even had her own art space in the house.  After art school, she worked on her own art in the evenings and in an art studio by day.  She wasn’t creating books right away, but when she started she found inspiration right in her own life.  At this point, the book focuses on Ehlert’s previous work and the process she uses to create her beloved books.  This is a colorful and delightful visit to an artist’s studio.

Ehlert approaches this biographical book just as she does her fictional picture books.  The pages are scattered with scraps, cut out objects, designs from her previous work, and photographs from her past.  The result is a book that shines with her own personal style and energy.  This could be no one else’s studio and no one else’s art.  Ehlert invites young readers not only to explore her own history and approach to art, but also to seek out their own and create things themselves. 

Bright, beautifully messy, and wonderfully creative, this book will be inspiring to young artists and authors.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane.

home for mr emerson

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in Boston where he moved often with his family.  He dreamed of living out in the country near fields and woods.  After college Emerson moved to the small town of Concord, Massachusetts where he bought a farmhouse.  He brought along a bride and an extensive personal library.  He quickly found that he wanted friends to fill up his house and set off throughout Concord to meet his neighbors.  Emerson now had all that he wanted, a family, woods, fields, an orchard and many books and friends.  He began to travel extensively and lecture which brought even more people to his home, people from around the world.  Then one day, Emerson’s beloved home caught on fire and it was his way of life that saves him in the end.

The creative team that did The Extraordinary Mark Twain and What to Do about Alice? return with another dynamic picture book biography.  Kerley manages to both introduce Emerson to elementary-aged children and also to delve deeply into his personal life and the way that his writings reflected that lifestyle as well.  More details about Emerson and his life are available at the end of the book along with inspiration for young people to build their own worlds around what they love. 

Fotheringham’s illustrations are fresh and whimsical.  He has created a world of vivid colors against which the black and white figure of Emerson pops out.  Nature is celebrated in the images, reflecting Emerson’s connection to it and the Concord community spirit is shown as well.

Another exceptional picture book biography from an amazing team, this is a great pick for young readers who don’t know Emerson but will appreciate his sentiments.   Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.

when the beat was born

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

Clive had loved music since he was a child.  He lived in Kingston, Jamaica and loved to listen to DJs at the parties in his neighborhood.  He was too young to attend, but he watched them set up before the parties and dreamed of becoming a DJ himself.  When he was 13, Clive moved to New York City with his mother.  That was where he started to play sports and got the nickname “Hercules” due to his size.  He was soon known as Kool Herc.  When his father got a sound system, Kool Herc became a DJ at a party he threw with his sister.  Herc noticed that people loved to dance during the parts of the songs with no lyrics, so he found a new way of playing the records that extended that part of the song.  He started calling out the names of his friends in the crowd.  Soon he was creating the music that led to a new style of dance: breakdancing.  And that’s how hip hop was born.

Hill tells this story of a legendary DJ with a mix of straight forward tone and rhythmic writing.  There is nothing overt in his rhythm, just a wonderful beat that the entire book moves to.  Hill clearly ties DJ Kool Herc to the entire hip hop movement from the very beginning of his book through to the end.  He traces the connections and makes them clear and firm, just like Herc did with the connections to the giant speakers to get them to work.

The illustrations have a wonderful groove as well.  This is Taylor’s first picture book and I hope he does more.  His images have a wonderful richness of color without being dark at all.  They also merge strong graphic qualities into the images, making them really sing.

A great nonfiction picture book biography, this book will help fill in gaps in library collections and will speak to the history of the music kids are listening to right now.  Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

little fish

Little Fish: A Memoir from a Different Kind of Year by Ramsey Beyer

This graphic novel takes real journals, collages, lists and drawings to show the author’s transitional first year of college.  Ramsey grew up in very small Paw Paw, Michigan.  She was an artist from a young age and worked very hard at it, earning a spot in one of the top art schools in the country.  This meant moving to Baltimore and making new friends for the first time since she was a young child.  It also meant that she would no longer be the best artist around, she would be challenged as an artist in her classes, and she would have to find her own way in this new setting.  Beyer’s novel shows the difficulties and triumphs of a freshman year of college, and is sure to encourage other little fish to try their luck in the big city.

Beyer’s use of her own personal real-life work that comes directly from that time in her life makes this entire novel work.  It carries a weight that it would not have without that honest voice of youth at its core.  The mixed media format also makes the entire book compulsively readable.  Since you never know what is on the next page or what format it might be in, there is a constant desire to find out more and read longer.

Beyer’s art is done entirely in black and white in the book.  She plays with light and dark throughout, capturing both the loneliness of the first days at college and also the dynamic friendships and love interests that come later.  Her work is humorous and yet poignant.

This is a very strong, dynamic look at the first year of college.  Teens will enjoy looking into their own future plans with a little laughter and lots of optimism.  Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from library copy.

boy who loved math

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Paul Erdos grew up loving math from a very young age.  Growing up in Budapest, Hungary, Paul loved to think about numbers.  Unfortunately, he didn’t love school with all of its rules, so he was homeschooled by Fraulein, his nanny, until he went to high school.  Paul grew famous for his math but he still could not take care of himself and do his own laundry, cook his meals or even butter his own bread.  So when at age 21 he was invited to go to England to work on his math, he was worried about whether he could do it.  It turned out that buttering bread was not that difficult and that he would follow his own sort of lifestyle that ignored the rules.  So he traveled and did math around the world, staying with fellow mathematicians and relying on them to take care of him and his laundry and his meals.  He was the furthest thing from a stereotypical solitary mathematician to the point that people now have an “Erdos number” that shows how closely they worked with the amazing mathematician Paul Erdos.

This is such a wonderful biography.  It is a breath of fresh air in so many ways.  First, it plays against the stereotype of introverted and shy mathematicians working in solitude on formulas and instead shows Erdos as a vivacious man who didn’t just work with others, but depended on them.  Second, it shows mathematics as ever changing and new, something that is enticing and exciting.  Heiligman uses a light tone throughout as well as an obvious respect for Erdos’ brilliance and accomplishments. 

The illustrations share the same playful feel of the text.  Done in bold colors and dynamic motion, they have a humor that is welcome as well.  The look on Erdos’ face as he tries to butter his own bread for the first time is priceless and wonderful.  Children will be amazed that such a bright man would struggle with basic tasks.

A pleasure to read, this is an unusual biography that will make a welcome addition to nonfiction shelves.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

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