Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman
The author of Looking at Lincoln takes on Thomas Jefferson in her newest picture book biography. The focus in this biography is on the wide range of Jefferson’s interests and how he truly was a Renaissance man. Monticello, the house Jefferson designed and built, serves as a fine background to his interests since the home itself was ever changing and also housed many of his interests as well. The book looks at fascinating small details like the design of Jefferson’s bed, the extensive vegetable gardens, and his hours spent practicing music. After fully exploring Jefferson personally, the book turns to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson becoming the third President of the United States. Then the book also explores the fact that Jefferson had slaves and fathered children with one of them, Sally Henning. This is a complex and thorough look at a man who was brilliant in so many ways but troubled as well.
Kalman writes biographies with her own opinions right on the page. So when she addresses the slave issue, she speaks of “our hearts are broken” and then speaks to how tragic it is that Jefferson’s children who could pass as white had to hide who they really were. This adds a personality to the book, making it far richer than simple facts would. It will assure young readers that it is good for them to have opinions about history and to express them too.
As always, it is Kalman’s art that sets this book apart. Her illustrations range from more serious portraits of the historical figures to eye-popping bright colors in the vegetable gardens where paths are pink next to the bright green of the grass. It is all entirely rich and joyful.
Another dynamic and unique biography from Kalman, this book belongs in every public library serving children. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.
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.
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
A celebrated poet and author of books for children and teens, Nelson tells the story of growing up in the Civil Rights era and her connection to poetry. In fifty poems, several of which have been previously published, Nelson reveals her growing up from age 4 through 14 during the 1950s and 1960s. The poems show her progression from child to a self-aware teen who is directly impacted by the changes in civil rights. Nelson also touches on the Cold War and feminism along with race in these poems. Each poem here is a gem, carefully crafted and firmly placed in its setting in the book. Beautiful.
In her author’s note, Nelson mentions that she prefers not to see the character in the book as herself but rather as “The Speaker.” The first person perspective though will leave readers assuming that this is Nelson’s personal story and journey and it’s difficult to change that perception after reading the entire book. Perhaps even more than the historical period it is The Speaker’s love of poetry and writing that makes the connection to Nelson as that person ring so true. It is that love of poetry and words that makes each poem so beautiful, but also makes the narrator come alive.
Beautiful and worth rereading and revisiting, this collection of poems that forms a story is deep and worth submerging yourself in. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial 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.
Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America by Tonya Bolden
This nonfiction book takes a detailed look at a period in history that most of us know nothing about. It is the history of Indian Territory and the slaves who worked and lived there. It is the story of Oklahoma becoming a state, the establishment of black towns, and the changes that the oil boom brought to that area. It is also the story of one girl who is caught up in this history, made rich by the circumstances, and just like many other black children trapped by the corruption of those around her.
The history here is completely fascinating. Bolden brings it to life by focusing on one girl, but that focus really is a way to enter the story rather than the bulk of the story itself. Instead the story is the history and the twists and turns that it created. Bolden manages to piece together the story of Sarah Rector against this history, displaying the corruption of the adults and the system, the rush of wealth that comes and goes so quickly, and the racism that drove it all.
Bolden always creates nonfiction that is compellingly written. She shares sources at the end, offers a complete index, and her dedication to accuracy is clear throughout her books. Using primary documents, she has managed to bring together text and illustrations that paint a complete picture of the time.
Fascinating and powerful, this look into an unknown section of our history makes for one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger, illustrated by Robert Byrd
Based on a real person from history, this fictionalized account is told through the eyes of Margru, one of the few children aboard the Amistad. Due to a famine in Mendeland, West Africa, Margru’s father was forced to pawn her out to feed the rest of the family. From there, Margru is taken captive and put upon a slave ship with many other people heading for a plantation in the Caribbean. But on the journey, the captive men rebelled against their captors and took over the ship, attempting to sail it back to Africa. Deceived by the ship’s navigator, they landed in Long Island, NY and the adults were put on trial. The children were kept as witnesses to the crimes aboard the ship. Margru longed for her African homeland but also ended up learning not only to read but graduating from college as a teacher. This is Margru’s story of fear, bravery, slavery, captivity and freedom.
Edinger beautifully captures this famous moment in history from Margru’s point of view. The use of the first person perspective makes the book read as easily as fiction, but throughout the reader can also feel the weight of the historical research behind the story. The use of historical information throughout the book is very helpful and combined with that first person view it is a book that is compelling reading with a heroine who is equally fascinating.
Byrd’s art is stunning. He uses moves gracefully between historically-accurate images that capture important historical moments to more stylized pictures that flow with lines and dream of Africa. He starkly contrasts the worlds of the greens of Africa and the cold, formality of the United States.
Beautifully written and illustrated, this book gives a first-person account of the Amistad, looking beyond the revolt into the trial and what happened to one little girl caught in history. Appropriate for ages 8-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Locomotive by Brian Floca
This book thoroughly celebrates the days of steam trains when rails were just starting to bridge the nation. It begins with the building of the railroad, coming from east and west and meeting in the middle. Filled with the sounds of building and the sounds of trains, this book fairly sings with the noises of the railroad. Your trip starts on a quiet platform waiting for a train. Once aboard, readers learn about the way steam powers the engine and the jobs of different people aboard. Readers ride aboard the train, visit the bathroom which is basically a hole in the floor, and sleep along the way. On the way west, you can see the landscape change, cross fragile bridges and enter black tunnels. This entire book is a stirring testament to steam engines and the people who worked them.
Floca offers so many details here. One might think that would slow the book down, but it is really all about those details and the entire experience of travel by steam train. He keeps the interest level high by being very selective of the facts he shares. It makes the reading fascinating and even young train buffs should learn a thing or two.
Floca’s illustrations are beautiful. He lingers over details in his images as well as in the text. Readers get to see mechanisms close up, feel the speed of the train as it moves forward, and see the light reflecting off of the tight tunnel walls. He creates an experience here that speaks to the time period clearly with his choice of fonts and the design of the entire book. His illustrations are sometimes front and center, other times serving more as diagrams of interesting facts.
Gorgeous illustrations, fascinating facts and a clear love of the subject make this a riveting read whether you are a train buff or not. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
March: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
This is the first book in a planned series of graphic novels that follow the life of Congressman John Lewis and his work in the civil rights struggle. This first book opens with President Obama’s inauguration day and then flashes back to critical points throughout Lewis’ life. It tells the story of his connection to animals on the farm, particularly chickens. It also shows him as a young minister and his determination to stay in school and then to attend college. Readers get to witness the violence of the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement including many pivotal moments in history like the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters.
This is one powerful graphic novel. The writing is sterling and strong. It shines with an honest portrayal of historical events from someone who did not just witness them, but fought the battles personally. The book clearly explains the world of the 1950s and 1960s, making sure that modern readers understand the dangers of the times and the differences. It is both a historical book but also one that is important for modern teens to understand how far we have come and how far we have to go.
Powell’s art is stellar. It is stirring art that evokes history with a fresh eye. He creatively uses light and dark, playing with words across it at times, other times allowing the darkness to take control. There is a sense of witnessing history throughout the book in both the words and the art.
An impressive graphic novel for teens, this book shines light on the Civil Rights Movement. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.