Tag Archive: biographies

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.


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.

becoming babe ruth

Becoming Babe Ruth by Matt Tavares

This biographical picture book takes a look at Babe Ruth’s formative years.  It is the story of a small boy named George Herman Ruth who gets into lots of trouble, so much that his father puts him into Saint Mary’s Industrial School for Boys.  There he has to follow the rules and work hard.  Happily, there is also baseball and George gets to play it almost every day.  Best of all, there is Brother Matthias who serves as an inspiration and mentor for George’s baseball game and life.  As George gets better and better, he is finally whisked into the world of major league baseball, but he never forgot the school and the man who got him there. 

Tavares writes in such an engaging way that the pages fly by.  The sudden sternness of the school is told in short, abrupt sentences that enforce the martial feel of the establishment.  That contrasts directly with the long sentences that talk about the beauty of baseball.  Readers can almost feel themselves taking a big gulp of freedom on those pages. 

The joy Tavares feels about his subject is also palpable.  From eating ice cream with the boys from the school, to tipping his hat to them as he walks on the field, to the pleasure of hitting a ball, all are captured with a fondness and pleasure in the paintings that are the illustrations in the book. 

This is a baseball biography that children will find accessible and fascinating.  Play ball!  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

on a beam of light

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

The author of Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau (my review) returns with this picture book biography of Einstein.  It follows the story of Einstein from birth through his series of amazing discoveries about the universe.  The book begins with pages where Einstein as a small child does not speak until he is inspired to ask questions thanks to a compass which is given to him.  Einstein is also inspired by picturing his bicycle riding on beams of light, racing through space.  So he began to study science and numbers and after graduating from college wanted to be a teacher.  Instead, he found a job working in a government office where he had extra time to think.  That time to think turned into incredible discoveries about science and the nature of the universe until scientists and professors were seeking Einstein out to come and work with them.  The end of the book celebrates Einstein’s eccentricities as well as the discoveries that he made.  This is an inspiring look at a scientist who broke all the rules and decoded the universe.

Berne’s writing truly celebrates this amazing thinker.  The pacing is brisk, but the tone allows readers to linger and think if they wish to.  When she focuses on his odder behaviors, they are seen through a lens of what they meant for his genius rather than just being peculiar.  And who wouldn’t want to not wear socks and have ice cream too! 

Radunsky’s illustrations are done on textured paper that adds a soft yellow glow to the entire book, something wonderful to have in a book that speaks about rays of light.  His drawings are rough and have a wonderful sense of playfulness. 

A great read about a great man, this picture book biography should be welcomed by young scientists as well as in science classrooms.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

who says women cant be doctors

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Back in the 1830s, there were no women doctors, only men could have that career.  But also growing up in the 1830s was a young girl who would end up changing that.  Elizabeth Blackwell was not particularly well behaved: she was always exploring, working to toughen herself up, and even carried her brother over her head until he backed down.  Elizabeth had not dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she was inspired when an friend mentioned how much nicer it would have been to be examined by a woman.  When Elizabeth started talking about her new dream, people mocked her and told her it was impossible.  She applied to school after school, until finally the 29th school she applied for said yes!  But Elizabeth would have to face additional challenges in school and beyond as well.  This is the story of a woman who would not take no for an answer and the way that she changed the face of medicine along the way.

Stone has written a very engaging biography of Blackwell.  Much of the story is spent on her childhood and the challenges she faced getting into medical school.  I love the image of a spunky young girl who just wants to explore and demonstrates determination from a very young age.  She is an inspiring figure for youth, someone who discovered her dream and stood by it despite the many obstacles in her way and the mockery she endured.  Stone’s author’s note continues Blackwell’s story and offers a photograph of the real Dr. Blackwell.

Priceman’s illustrations done in gouache and India ink are filled with bright colors.  They bring the past to life, showing the energy of the young Elizabeth Blackwell and incorporating the vistas and buildings of the 1800s.  While they are bright and vibrant, they also serve to make sure that readers are cognizant of the period in which the book takes place.

Blackwell is a real-life heroine that young readers should be aware of.  This bright and welcoming new biography for younger readers is a welcome addition to library collections.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.

rachel carson and her book

Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor, illustrated by Laura Beingessner

This is a biographical picture book about the environmentalist Rachel Carson.  The book covers her childhood, which she spent outside in her family’s woods, orchards and fields.  Her mother loved nature and passed her passion on to her daughter.  Though times were tough and her father struggled to make enough money to support the family, Rachel was able to attend Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh.  It was during this time that she started to be concerned about the environment. Rachel decided to become a biologist and received her Master’s Degree, becoming one of the few female biologists.  After some time jobless due to the Great Depression, her two skills of science and writing came together in a job for the Bureau of Fisheries writing radio scripts about sea life.  After World War II, Rachel became alarmed at the chemicals being sprayed everywhere.  Though she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, she continued work on Silent Spring which caused such a reaction that new laws were created to protect the environment.  This book tells the story of a woman who was smart, scientifically gifted, and passionate about the natural world she loved so much. 

Lawlor pays real homage to Rachel Carson here.  It is the story of her entire life, from the early days of connecting with nature through her years of study to the final, vital book she wrote.  Hers is an inspirational story of what can be done by someone who is smart and passionate about a subject.  It is also a great story about a woman who defied the conventions and followed her dreams.  Lawlor makes Carson both intensely human but also heroic.

The illustrations are done in a simple style with ink and watercolor.  They celebrate the natural world around Carson with plenty of the greens of the woods and the blues of the waters.  And in each, Carson is observing and making notes.  It’s a glimpse of a woman who is a scientist first and foremost.

This is a celebration of a groundbreaking book by a groundbreaking woman.  Appropriate for ages 5-8. 

Reviewed from library copy.


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