The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra by Chris Raschka
Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka has both written and illustrated this picture book biography of the jazz musician Sun Ra. Sun Ra claimed that he came from Saturn. He came to earth in 1914 in Alabama and he was named Herman and called Sonny. From the very beginning, Sonny loved music. He learned to be a musician as a young child and also studied about philosophy. As a teen, Sun Ra was already a professional musician. When World War II came, he refused to become a soldier and instead was labeled a conscientious objector. After the war, Sun Ra returned to his music and formed The Arkestra. They made wild jazz music, created their own costumes, and toured the world sharing their music. Sun Ra left earth in 1993, having changed it for the better with his music.
Raschka has created a celebration of Sun Ra on these pages. His text is playful and invites readers into the book. It opens with the idea that Sun Ra was from Saturn and scoffs at that, but then plays along with it as a premise throughout the book. Intelligently, children are invited in on the humor and can see what is really happening that way.
Raschka’s illustrations are bright and loose. They suit the jazz of the music with their free flowing lines, deep colors and they way they capture landscapes as well. These are illustrations that celebrate music on a deep level.
A beautiful picture book about a jazz legend, this picture book should be welcome in all library collections. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey Fern, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
Ever since she was a little girl, Eleanor Prentiss dreamed of being at sea. Her father had a trading schooner and though others thought he was a fool, he taught his young daughter how to steer it. Most importantly though, he also taught her what few sailors and only some captains knew, how to navigate. Ellen quickly learned how to navigate and started using her new skills on her father’s schooner every chance she got. As she grew older, Ellen married a captain and served as his navigator. Then the two of them acquired a clipper, The Flying Cloud. It was a fast boat, one that could make them bonus money if they could make the trip from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn in the fastest time ever. It would be down to the innate speed of the Flying Cloud and to the navigating skills of Eleanor. Sea journeys are never simple, especially ones done at high speed through stormy waters. Take an incredible ride with the amazing Eleanor Prentiss, who proved that women can be right at home at sea.
Fern writes with a dynamism that matches this heroine. She has an exuberant quality to her writing and a tone that invites you along on a wild adventure. At the same time, she makes sure that young readers understand how unusual Eleanor Prentiss was at the time with the way she was raised and the knowledge she built and life she led. The book reads like fiction particularly on the journey itself where a series of misfortunes plague their maiden voyage. Even without the race against time, the journey would be harrowing, add in that pressure and you have a nail-biting read.
McCully’s art ranges in this book. She captures Ellen both on land and at sea, her body strong against the roll of the waves. She also paints water with a love for its greens and blues and the depth of color. The storms are violently dark, the harbors a shining blue, this is water in all of its glory.
I grew up in a house named after the ship Flying Cloud and am so pleased to read a picture book about the ship’s history and learn more about the woman who navigated her. This is one dynamic and well-told biographical picture book. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.
The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley
This graphic novel memoir focuses on one idiotic idea that changes comic-creator Gownley’s life forever. At 13, Gownley was on top of the world. He was popular, getting great grades, and was top-scorer on the school basketball team. Then he got chicken pox and he had to miss the championship game. But that wasn’t the end of his bad luck, he followed the chicken pox with a bout of pneumonia and missed more school. Soon Jimmy wasn’t a basketball star and his grades were getting bad. Jimmy did have one thing going for him though, the dumbest idea ever! It was an idea that would make him money, get him popular again, find him a girlfriend, and even impress a very stern nun. And let me tell you, it takes one amazingly stupid idea to accomplish all that!
Gownley reveals how he became a cartoonist in this graphic novel. It is cleverly done with a strong story arc that keeps the entire book sturdily structured. Gownley has a wonderful self-deprecating humor that works particularly well in comic format. His humor is smart and very funny, often conveyed with ironic twists of eyebrows or sarcastic facial expressions. The book is a quick read thanks to the format but also to the fast pacing that will have readers happily turning page after page.
Get this into the hands of Smile! fans who will appreciate the humor, the honesty and the art. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Enter the amazing world of abstract art with this picture book biography of Kandinsky. Vasya Kandinsky was raised to be a very proper young Russian boy. Then his Auntie gave him a box of paints and he started to hear colors as sounds. No one else could hear the sounds, but to Vasya they were a symphony that he could paint. Vasya grew up and stopped painting. He still heard the colors around him, but he was going to be a lawyer. When he attended the opera one evening, Vasya saw the colors emerge from the music and was never quite the same again. He became a painter and tried to meet everyone’s expectations, but to be happy he had to paint in his own way, an abstract one.
Rosenstock’s biography is very successful, focusing on Kandinsky as a child and younger man. She doesn’t speak down to children at all here, instead bringing them up to her level and demonstrating what abstract art is, showing the struggle of an artist trapped in the wrong life, and finally beautifully displaying what a life well-lived looks like. She celebrates the transformation from lawyer to artist, from conventional to unique. This book joyfully exposes how we are all different from one another and how those differences can be incredible if allowed to sing.
GrandPre’s art is glorious. She shows what Kandinsky must have seen when hearing the opera and what he heard when the colors spoke to him. The music of the paint box and the noises that emerged for him are shown in flourishes of sound, bringing Kandinsky’s synthethesia vividly to the page. Her art is filled with motion when Kandinsky’s art is being expressed and then dims down to the staid and quiet when he is trying to conform.
Beautiful and choice, this picture book biography is one of the best. Get this for elementary art classes, museum visits, and young artists. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Florence Nightingale by Demi
This picture book biography shines thanks to its rich artwork. It tells the story of Florence Nightingale’s life beginning with her wealthy childhood in England. Florence’s mother was known for her parties, but Florence liked to spend time by herself and even as a child pretended that her dolls were sick and needed to be in a doll hospital. Florence traveled in Europe as a teenager and realized that she was called to help people. Her parents were dismayed when she declared that she wanted to be a nurse. Then later Florence got a chance to help in an orphanage and her parents allowed her to choose her own way. Florence excelled at organization, documentation and hygiene. She transformed the different places she worked at, eventually going to Turkey to help the soldiers during the Crimean War. Florence grew ill later in her life, but never stopped working on improving nursing and patient care around the world. She was an inspiration for many both as a nurse and a woman.
Demi writes with depth and detail in this biography. She paints a clear picture of Nightingale from childhood through her development as a nurse and finally as a world-renowned expert in nursing. It was fascinating to learn of Nightingale’s wealthy background and her unwillingness to turn her back on her calling.
Demi’s art is as rich as ever with her saturated colors that give way to other pages with rich yet delicate texture. Nightingale appears wearing her deep blue dress that somehow shines on the page even though it is often the darkest color there. Ones eye just travels straight to her and the heart of the story.
Rich and detailed, this is a winning picture book biography to introduce children to a major female figure from history. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.
The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Kate Sessions is the woman who made San Diego into the green city that it is today. She was a pioneering female scientist who grew up in the forests of Northern California. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a degree in science from the University of California, she moved to San Diego to be a teacher. San Diego was a desert town with almost no trees at all. So Kate decided to change all of that and began to hunt for trees that survive and thrive in a desert. Soon trees were being planted all over San Diego, but that was not enough for Kate who then worked to fill entire parks with her trees and gardens. Kate Sessions was a remarkable woman who helped San Diego become the great city it is today.
Hopkins takes a playful approach to this picture book biography. From the beginning he uses a format that ends each new event in Kate Session’s life with “But Kate did.” Not only does this create a strong structure for the story, but it shows Session’s determination to not be swayed by what others thought was possible. From the beginning, she was a unique person with a unique vision. It is that vision and her strength in the face of societal opposition that made her so successful.
McElmurry’s illustrations add a beauty to the book. She captures the lush green of the California forests and then allows readers to experience the transformation of San Diego from a barren desert to the lush green of Session’s many trees. She also shows all of the hard work that it took to make that transformation possible.
Sessions will be a newly found historical figure for most of us, and what an inspiration she is! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin
Will Allen is a farmer who can see the potential where others can’t. When he sees a vacant lot, he sees a farm with enough to feed everyone. When he was a boy, he grew up helping care for a large garden that kept their family fed. But Allen did not want to spend his life weeding and digging in the dirt, so he decided to become a basketball player, and he did. But then living in Milwaukee, he saw empty greenhouses standing vacant and realized that he could feed people who had never eaten a fresh vegetable. First though, he had to clear the land and then figure out how to improve his soil so that something could grow there. That was the first time that the neighborhood kids helped out, bringing compost items to feed the worms. Slowly and steadily, a community garden emerged and Will Allen taught others to be farmers too. His Milwaukee farm now gets 20,000 visitors a year so that others can learn to grow gardens where there had only been concrete.
I had seen the documentary, Fresh that includes Will Allen as part of the film about new thinking about food. So I was eager to see a picture book about this inspiring figure. It did not disappoint. Martin captures the natural progression of Allen’s life from child eating from the garden to farmer giving other children that same experience and spreading the word about what is possible in an urban setting. Martin’s tone throughout has a sense of celebration of Allen and his accomplishments. She captures his own inherent enthusiasm on the page.
Larkin’s illustrations are striking. Each could be a poster for farming and urban gardens on their own. Combined into a book, they become a celebration of this large man with an even larger dream. The colors are bright, the textures interesting and the image backgrounds evoke farming and nature.
This picture book biography is a visual feast that invites everyone to its community table. Librarians and teachers in Wisconsin should be particularly interested in adding this to their collection, but it will hold interest in urban and farming areas across the country. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Readers to Eaters.
Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
Nikola Tesla was born in Serbia during a lightning storm, something that would portend his future interest in electricity. At a young age, Tesla became fascinated by the invisible energy everywhere around him, in the water, the wind and the insect that flew. In college Tesla grew interested in alternating current though his professor thought it was impossible. Tesla studied and invented and eventually figured out how to make alternating current work, but he needed help. He headed to America to meet with Thomas Edison, someone he knew would be interested. But Edison was not, insisting that direct current was the only electricity he would work with. Soon Tesla and Edison were rivals in the “war of the currents.” This first picture book biography will introduce young readers to one of the great scientific inventors of all time and his greatest rival too.
Rusch tells the compelling story of Tesla and his inventions. She shows Tesla as a complicated person, eager to pursue his own ideas and willing to stand up for them in the face of great opposition. She also tells the story of the rivalry of the two men in a very engaging way and Tesla’s ultimate victory and how he reached it. Her writing is engaging, detailed and impressive.
Dominguez’s illustrations are filled with period details that help ground this picture book directly in the time in which it is set. Scientific instruments are often in the forefront of the images, showing their structures in detail. This is a true celebration of the science of invention.
An electric read, this book shines light on a great man. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Candlewick Press.
Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look and Meilo So
This is a picture book biography of Wu Daozi from the T’ang Dynasty, who is considered China’s greatest painter. As a child, Daozi is taught calligraphy, but his brush does not want to just create Chinese characters. Instead, he creates the first stroke and then turns it into an animal like a fish or a horse. Daozi began to paint on walls, painting so fast that his sleeves opened like wings, gaining him the nickname of Flying Sleeves. He painted every day and people began to leave coins for him that he donated to feed the poor. As time passed, his skills grew even greater until the creatures he drew and painted became alive and left the flat surface of the walls. He was then commissioned to paint an entire wall for the emperor, a project that took him many years. In the end though, he created an entire world on a wall, one that you could almost walk right into.
Beautifully told and illustrated, this picture book biography takes a playful tone right from the beginning. The sense that Daozi was not in control of his own gift makes for a wonderful insight into the drive and talent of artists and the way their talents can control them. It is also a tribute to the skills gained by doing what you love and practicing a tremendous amount. Daozi’s work and its lifelike quality is captured through a magical transformation to life in the story, making this feel much more like folklore than a biography.
Look’s text will work best for elementary-aged children, as she tells the story of hard work and talent combined into something spectacular. They will also be more likely to understand the juxtaposition of biography and magical realism that is in the book. Her writing is clear and lingers in all of the right moments and moves quickly when those moments are right too. So’s illustrations are a tribute to Chinese art. Done with clear brushstrokes, they also have fine details and small touches that make them shine.
This is a very impressive biography of an incredible artist that few children will be aware of before reading this book, making it perfect to share with children in art classes. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House via Edelweiss.