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.
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.