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.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Born in 1888, Horace Pippin loved to draw from the time he was a small child. He would draw on scrap paper using charcoal, he would draw for his friends, and he would even draw on his spelling tests though his teacher did not appreciate that. As he grew, he had to quit school in 8th grade. He worked hard with his hands in different ways, but continued to draw and paint. Then Horace went to war and was wounded in his right arm. Now he could no longer draw, or so he thought. He started trying again with a poker and using his other hand to steady himself. As he grew stronger, he drew more and more. Eventually, he gained the attention of people like N. C. Wyeth, who helped put together his first art show. Pippin’s life that was filled with hardships and obstacles serves as inspiration for young artists.
Bryant and Sweet collaborated before with Caldecott Honor results. This picture book biography of an important but lesser known African-American artist shows the power of art in one’s life and how it is impossible to stop seeing and communicating the world through art once you begin. Bryant writes with a solidity that is lovely. Incorporating Pippin’s own words from letters, she captures the life of this artist and how he came to be recognized for his work.
Sweet too weaves Pippin’s words into her art. Her use of collage truly builds Pippin’s world before readers’ eyes. My favorite image in the book is Pippin as a young boy sitting and drawing on piles of papers. It captures the intensity with which he created art even at such a young age. This intensity continues through his story to after he is wounded and the determination that is apparent in just his hands.
Another very successful collaboration of these two masters, this biographical picture book should serve as its own splash of red on every library’s shelves. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough, illustrated by Debbie Atwell
Annie Carroll Moore grew up in Limerick, Maine in a time when girls were not encouraged to be opinionated but she had her own ideas. Children in that time were also not allowed in libraries, especially not girls, because reading was not seen as important. Annie had always loved stories and books and though she thought at one time of being a lawyer like her father, she decided to become a librarian. She studied in New York City, living alone even though others thought it was dangerous. Miss Moore became a children’s librarian at the Pratt Free Library, with a room designed just for children. She had new ideas, of course, like letting children take books home and removing the large “SILENCE” signs from the libraries. As her new ideas took hold, Miss Moore changed library service for children into what we love today.
Pinborough clearly admires Miss Moore and her gumption and willingness to approach problems with new ideas. Miss Moore’s life work is detailed here but we also get to see to her personal life and the tragedies that marred it. Perhaps my favorite piece is the ending, where Miss Moore retires in her own special way, on her own terms. Don’t miss the author’s note with more information about Miss Moore as well as a couple of photographs of the woman herself.
The illustrations by Atwell have the rustic feel of folk art. It is colorful, vibrant and lends the entire work a playfulness that is entirely appropriate to the subject.
A celebration of one woman who changed the face of library service to children around the world, this book will be welcomed by librarians and children alike. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson
In a way that only Kadir Nelson could capture, this book tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s life, imprisonment and how he became the inspiration he is. This is a very humanizing tale of Mendela, showing his childhood before his father’s death and then his move across South Africa to study under a powerful chief. Mandela attended school and then got involved in fighting apartheid. The book follows him as he is jailed the first time and as he rises to be a threat to those in power and goes into hiding. Mandela returned to South Africa to continue the fight and is then jailed again, doing heavy labor. After being in prison for over 27 years, Mandela was freed. His passion for righting the wrongs of apartheid and speaking for equality of all people shines from every page.
Nelson tells the story of Mandela in verse that is factual but also compelling. He captures the long time spent in prison in a way that children will be able to understand. Cold meals, thin blankets and beating rocks into dust. It shows the futility and the harshness with such clarity. Nelson’s verse also has a great sense of awe for this man and what he has accomplished, that too makes it a very special, honest book.
As always, Nelson’s images are simply wondrous. Here they seem to shine from within whenever Mandela is part of the image. As you can see from the cover illustration, there is all of the human inside his art; it radiates from his work. Shown with detail, interesting perspectives, and ending with a sense of celebration, Nelson’s art is a standout.
This is the story of Nelson Mandela captured fully in a picture book that celebrates all of his accomplishments and what he stands for as a human being. Beautiful. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Katherine Tegen Books.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Clara Lemlich and her family came to America planning to find jobs, but no one will hire her father. The factories did want girls like Clara though, and so she started working in the garment industry. She worked from dusk to dawn in rows with other young girls, sewing as fast as she could. If they were late at all, they lost half a day’s wages. If they pricked their fingers and bled on the cloth they were fined, if it happened again they were fired. The doors were locked, there was no fresh air, and the girls were inspected when they left to make sure they weren’t stealing anything. But Clara would not be held down, she went to the library and learned English, teaching the other factory girls on their lunch break. Then Clara learned about unions and strikes, though some thought the girls were not tough enough to strike. So began her transformation into a union leader, through beatings and hunger, these girls and Clara are the people we have to thank for fair hours and pay.
Markel tells the story with a strong heart and a certain thrill. Readers get to see a quiet girl get off of the boat and steadily transform through self-education and pure tenacity into an amazing person who had strength and energy enough for several people. Markel manages to tell the story of the times without dedicating much of her brief story to background. Instead she uses the situation at the mill to speak on their own. She ends the book with more information about the garment industry, giving facts and figures about how many girls were working there and the abuses they suffered.
Sweet’s illustrations are a treat. Her paintings are turned into collage with the addition of various textiles and trims. On one page the buildings of New York are painted and then enriched by trimmings, stitches and swatches of material. On another the painting is smaller and then framed by material. Clara herself is often wearing a look of determination on her face, usually with a fist clenched as if ready to do battle at any time.
This is a wonderful picture book biography about a heroine that children can related directly to, since she is so young. It is also a very timely read with labor under such pressure right now. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman by Esme Raji Codell, illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
Two modern children are transported back in time from the busy highways filled with cars to the quiet woods of the late 1700s. From there, the story of Johnny Appleseed, really named John Chapman, is told. The differences between the world back then and our modern world are explored. Then the way of life that Johnny Appleseed embraced that of using what you have, respecting nature, sharing, making peace, and reaching your destination in small steps is tied back to how important those things are still for us today. His planting of seeds changed the landscape of our country. The book ends asking what seed you will plant.
Codell writes with a wonderful lyricism paired with a directness. It makes for a book that is straight-forward but also written with care to create a specific mood. Chapman’s story is filled with legend, especially in his relationship with nature and animals. While some of it may be tall tales, it contributes to the wonder that surrounds this man. Codell made a choice to have some of that in her book and it works very well, distinctly noted as legend rather than fact.
Perkins’ illustrations vary from page to page. Most of the art is done in watercolor and gouache, creating bright colored images that embrace the natural and feel clear and crisp. Other pages incorporate burlap bags and needlework. It’s a clever use of materials of the period that really add another dimension to the illustrations.
A beautiful look at a man who stand for much of what we are seeking in modern society. This book reaches beyond the legend and finds the real Johnny Appleseed. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares
This picture book biography of Helen Keller celebrates both the accomplishments of Helen Keller in overcoming her world of darkness and silence and those of her teacher Annie Sullivan. The book begins with Helen as a small baby, before she had an unknown illness at 19 months that took her sight and hearing away. It then moves through her attempts to continue to communicate, the frustration that caused her tantrums, and the slow progression of learning that led to the seminal moment at the water pump that connected the letters in her hand to the outside world. Readers will see how Helen learned to write, read in Braille, and put her hands on people’s faces to feel their lips move so she could understand their speech. The book continues to show how Helen Keller spoke up for social injustices that she felt were wrong. This is a testament to what a brilliant mind and a great teacher can create.
Rappaport has somehow condensed the complicated story of Keller’s life into a very readable picture book that has a brisk pace and invites readers to find out more about this remarkable woman. Throughout the book, Keller’s own words are used to illustrate points in the story. Shown in their own font that is colorful and set apart from the rest of the text in size too, her words shine.
Tavares’ illustrations reveal the marvel of Helen Keller’s learning and education. There is a light to the images once the learning begins that contrasts with the darkness of her earlier life. Throughout Keller is shown experiencing the senses she does have, from the scent of a rose to the feel of the breeze on her face.
An inspirational figure, Helen Keller continues to be a beacon for overcoming obstacles and using one’s mind. This book is a beautiful tribute to her. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.
Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by David Diaz
Martin de Porres was born to a former slave and a Spanish nobleman in Lima, Peru. He lived in severe poverty in the barrios until his father took him back to Ecuador with him. As Martin grew older, he returned to Lima and started learning to tend to the ill. His healing power revealed itself while he was there. Thanked for his healing, he was given the seeds of a lemon tree as a gift. After planting the seeds, a tree grew overnight and had ripe fruit. Word began to spread about this amazing boy. Still, his mixed race prohibited him from becoming a priest, so he joined the Dominican Order as a servant. He continued to heal others, eventually proving his ability and worth and becoming a priest after all. Other stories of miracles surrounded him and he was finally canonized as a saint. Through vivid writing and rich illustrations, the story of the childhood of this saint is told.
Schmidt’s writing warmly celebrates the wonders and miracles of Martin de Porres. It is a story that starts with a boy who is the poorest of the poor, rejected by the priesthood and eventually ends with sainthood and life led in service to others. In a world divided just as much between rich and poor, this story will resonate with modern young readers.
Diaz’s illustrations are filled with colors that are saturated and deep. The deep hues of Martin de Porres’ skin are celebrated in the pages here. Other parts of the illustrations have a feel of stained glass with sun pouring through. The images are beautiful and celebratory.
A shining example of a picture book biography of a saint, this book will speak to modern readers as well as celebrate an amazing person. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.