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.
The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein
This picture book tells the story of how drawing first started. Inspired by the the 30,000 year old paintings in caves in southern France, the story focuses on one boy who sees the world differently from everyone else. When he looks at the clouds, he sees animals. Everyone else just sees clouds. When the firelight flickers on the walls of the cave as they go to sleep, he sees herds of beasts. No one else does. So he gets the name “Child Who Sees What Isn’t There.” He tries to explain what and how he is seeing things, but it isn’t until he picks up a charcoal stick from the fire and actually draws the lines he is seeing that others can see it too.
Beautifully told, Gerstein weaves the story of these caves into an exploration of how artists see the world in a unique and powerful way. By choosing very tangible examples of how artists see, children reading the book will quickly realize that they are artists as well. It is also helped by the use of second person narrative, so that children are identified as the child who invented art. The author’s note explains more about the caves as well as why Gerstein was inspired to tell the story of a child drawing.
Gerstein’s art is bright and large. He shows large swathes of sky filled with clouds, lands filled with animals, and makes sure that readers see the inspiration for the later art. This contrasts with the tight closeness of the fire-lit cave that is all dancing flames and stone walls.
A virtuoso picture book, this is a wonderful melding of history, possibility, and art. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet and One Extraordinary Riot by Lauren Stringer
This is the story of how two Russian artists collaborated to create a revolutionary new ballet, The Rite of Spring. When the two artists met one another, each of them started to change. Stravinsky’s music changed and Nijinsky’s dance changed. They inspired one another to try something entirely new and created a ballet based on Russian folk dances and folk songs. Even at rehearsal, some of the musicians walked out, but enough stayed so that the show could go on. When the ballet was first performed, the crowd was split. Some people loved the new music and dancing, others were shocked and hated it. The crowd took to the streets to continue to express their anger and appreciation. This is a great picture book biography that captures the magic of creativity that results when two masters collaborate on something brave and new.
Stringer’s writing takes a complicated story and distills it to the most important points. Young readers will quickly understand that the two men brought new ideas out of one another, finding each other inspiring. Her art also speaks to the collaboration of these two men, using flowing lines and deep yet soft colors. She inserts elements from the art of the time, referencing movements like cubism in both her text and art. The end of the book has photographs of the two artists and dancers in the ballet. It also has a longer look at their collaboration.
A great choice for art and music classes, I’d recommend listening to The Rite of Spring with the group too. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Gandhi: A March to the Sea by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
This nonfiction picture book focuses on Gandhi’s 24-day March to the Sea in 1930. Joined by over 70 others, this was a nonviolent protest of British rule of India and the taxes they had levied on salt. Told in verse, this picture book explores how the march united the different faiths and castes of India into a common cause. The book and journey ends with Gandhi scooping salt from the sea, inspiring many others to do the same. Many were imprisoned for their actions, but they proved too numerous for the prison system and had to be released. This is a profound and impressive look at a nonviolent action that was noticed around the world and still serves as inspiration today.
McGinty’s verse is free and flowing. She nicely integrates imagery that is moving and speaks volumes about the situation. Just one line from when Gandhi reaches the sea: “white salt dusting dark sand.” McGinty also weaves in the way that Gandhi inspired others to spin their own thread rather than relying on British cloth, how he prayed together with all faiths, truly how he created a single community out of so many different ones.
The illustrations by Gonzalez are exquisite. His paintings capture the stones on the path, the crowds that gathered, and finally Gandhi by the sea, alone and strong. All of the images show a man of strength of conviction and a spirit that was unfailing. They are stunningly evocative of the man and his mission.
This is a top-notch picture book that truly conveys the difference one man can make in the world being nonviolent. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Beatles Were Fab (And They Were Funny) by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst
This is a picture book biography of The Beatles that captures their humor and the way that they used it in their music and lifestyle. The book begins with the formation of the band and the fun they had naming themselves. The book talks about their use of silliness and jokes to keep their spirits up as they struggled to make it, looking for a record deal. When success came, it came quickly and with success came fame and fans. Then there was the Beatlesmania craze that swept the United States, nothing like it had been seen before or since. Krull includes some small details like American fans throwing jellybeans on stage because the band said they liked jellybabies, but jellybabies are soft where jellybeans are certainly not. She then has a section on each Beatle and some of the interesting responses they gave during interviews. This is a merry and fast-moving look at one of the greatest bands of all time.
Krull injects her nonfiction work with humor and zest. She tells specific stories that offer insight into the Beatles nature. It is a treat to hear their own words but it is also wonderful to read about moments in history that are revealing about their character. Krull and Brewer skillfully end the book before drug use became an issue for the band. Instead they focus on the early Beatles and their humor rather than the complexity of the later Beatles music and attitudes.
Innerst’s illustrations are just as humorous and playful as the stories that Krull and Brewer tell. The characters have a feel of bobble-heads and a strong modern vibe. He
she uses bright colors that match the energy of the text. I have to say, I am particularly partial to Ringo’s nose in the illustrations.
This strong picture book biography is not made for research, but instead fans of the Beatles can share part of their story with children and everyone is sure to end up humming some of the songs. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
This is a lovely new picture book version of Fatty Legs that will share Olemaun’s story with younger readers than the original chapter book. It follows Olemaun from her time with her nomadic family through her attending the “outsider’s school.” There her hair is chopped short and her warm parka is replaced with thin and scratchy clothing. Her name is even changed to Margaret. Margaret wants most to learn to read, but the school is much more interested in getting the children to work hard rather than teaching them. Margaret has a difficult relationship with one nun in particular who makes a point of humiliating her regularly. In the end though, Margaret does learn to read all on her own.
This is a story that works really well as a picture book. I really enjoyed both Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home that were chapter books, but this younger version simplifies the story and keeps its quiet power. As with the earlier books, I remain in awe at the strength that it took for Margaret to survive in the school and also the courage it takes to keep on telling her story.
Grimard’s illustrations echo the beauty of the Arctic but also capture the dullness and darkness of the school. The nun character radiates scorn and anger on every page she appears in. Margaret is shown usually isolated, but also as radiant in her resiliency.
A powerful look at residential schools on Native populations, this picture book version belongs in most libraries. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Annick Press.