Tag Archive: biographies


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.

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.

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