As a little girl growing up in Eatonville, Zora loved to listen to stories. She listened to stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox at the general store. Zora told her own stories too, to anyone who would listen. But her father didn’t approve of her storytelling, since he considered it telling lies. Her mother though, didn’t want her children growing up to till the land, so she encourage Zora to “jump at de sun.” When Zora’s mother died, she was sent to the Florida Baptist Academy boarding school. Zora loved the books there, but soon her school fees were not paid and she had to leave. She didn’t stay long with her family, quickly moving out and finding work though she kept getting fired or quitting. She only loved the times when she could spin stories. Zora decided to return to high school and graduate, so she lied about her age of 26, claiming she was 16. After graduating, she headed to Howard University and decided to become an author, writing her stories of Eatonville. So she moved to New York and eventually sent out some of her stories to a magazine contest. Zora made another leap after she got attention from winning the contest and got a scholarship to another college where she was assigned to collect Negro folklore, something she had been doing since she was a child!
Williams writes Hurston’s biography with such energy and appreciation. She takes the statement Hurston’s mother made and turns it not only into the title of the book but also into a sentiment woven throughout the entire story, showing the connection between Hurston’s success, her talent and her willingness to make leaps of faith to new opportunities. There is bravery and resilience on these pages, shining in the sunlight as Hurston takes risks in the most inspiring ways.
The illustrations are marvelously colorful, filling the pages with Eatonville, various colleges and the dynamic feel of New York City. All of the pages are full-page art, taking the color right to the edge of the page, glowing with streaming sunlight, peach, green, blue and reds.
A shining leap of a picture book biography that suits its subject perfectly. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
This deeply personal graphic memoir tells the author’s story of being a creative person in our modern world. Spanning from 2011 to 2019, the book explores her life as a young adult. Starting with her time in art school with its loneliness and her growing meltdowns and self harm, the book explore the darker side of her personality. Her inner flame of creativity and passion battles the hole that she sees as gaping right at her middle. Still, that darkness is offset by wonderfully mundane happy moments such as apple picking in the fall and watching TV with people she enjoys. As the years progress, that strain of darkness and depression vs. creativity and wild energy continues. Stevenson shares her huge accomplishments too such as publishing her first graphic novel to great acclaim and winning national awards for it and running a highly successful series for Netflix. Still, those never quiet the negative thoughts. After finally crashing to her lowest point, Stevenson emerges like a phoenix, a woman in love, getting married and carrying her fire with her still.
There is so much sheer honesty and vulnerability on these pages that it is breathtaking. The mix of Stevenson’s writing with her illustrations, many created at the time she is talking about, makes for a dynamic read where her skill as both writer and artist is evident on every page. Perhaps most telling is how her huge successes did not diminish her negative internal experience, instead perhaps accelerating the crash. Her honesty about self harm and struggles with mental illness is amazing.
Stevenson carefully stays away from generalizing her experience, instead keeping her memoir very personal and about her own journey through creativity and the way it can burn and destroy as well as build. Because of this, readers can see themselves in her, relate to her feelings and see a way forward that does not involve a complete loss of self or creativity. It’s a book of hope, for creative queer people in particular.
Strong, personal and empowering, this is a memoir is a courageous look at mental illness. Appropriate for ages 16-19.
A little girl takes a coach ride with Hans Christian Andersen. As they head to Copenhagen, the author answers her questions and then tells her a fairy tale. It’s the story of a boy who learned to fly, the story of his own life. Born on a Danish island, Hans’ father was a cobbler who mended shoes. In the evening though, he would read to Hans from a big book of fairy tales. He also built Hans a puppet theater and performed shows for his son. Then Hans’ father was sent to war and returned tired and sick. He died when Hans was eleven. As Hans grew up, he was inspired to try to join the theater as an actor but his voice broke at age fifteen and he had to find a different way. Hans truly loved writing and was sent to school tuition free. Now Hans was on his way, a boy who grew up to be famous by sharing parts of himself in his fairy tales.
First published in Switzerland, this translated version is a rich look at a famous author who has captivated children for generations. Framing his life with questions from a small child is a clever device to allow the character to answer questions about his life and his stories. Allowing Andersen to tell his own life story as a fairy tale is also a believable format that invites readers to really get immersed in the life of this amazing figure in literature.
The illustrations by Kastelic are dreamy watercolors that move from realistic colors on the carriage ride to sepia tones as Andersen tells his personal story. They really burst from the page though when Andersen talks of his fairy tales, becoming rich and vibrant, the colors fantastical and wild. These changes beautifully show just as the story does, the power of story.
A superb picture book biography. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Emily Dickinson grew up in a small New England town. As a little girl, she explored the fields and gardens around her home, discovering new words and ways of thinking about the world around her. Her feelings were deeper than most people’s with higher joys and lower sadness. Her thoughts here also deeper, including her love for so much around her. She found sorrows and looked for solutions in school and church, but refused to put her faith in things she could not see. She had her own brand of hope, one that led her to her own truth too. That truth came to life in her poems, not shared with anyone, just with herself. They allowed her to express her feelings and the way she looked at the world, puzzle through things, and ask questions that could not be readily answered. Those same words now inspire so many readers to do the same, find their own voice, look at the world from their own lens: just as Emily did.
Berne writes her prose with a thoughtfulness that allows her to intersperse many of Dickinson’s own words in the text. Dickinson’s poems fly on the page, lifting it up in the way only she can. Berne then serves as her foundational story, offering clarity about Dickinson’s life and then pairing those with poems. It’s a delightful way to introduce young readers to poetry and to Emily Dickinson herself.
The illustrations have a lot of historically accurate elements like the Dickinson home and surroundings. Still, my favorite illustrations are the ones where Emily’s imagination soars along with the illustrations which become whimsical and wild.
A grand look at a great poet’s life and work. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Growing up in Yamhill, Oregon, Beverly spent her days on the family farm with animals for friends. She only had two books growing up, so she made up her own stories instead. When her mother got a children’s library created in Yamhill, Beverly finally had access to more stories. After moving to Portland, Beverly started school, determined to learn to read in class. Numbers were easy for her, but reading was hard. It didn’t help when she had to stay out of school for weeks due to smallpox. It wasn’t until the following year that she got a teacher who put in extra effort with Beverly to help her learn to read. Soon she was writing too and eventually became a librarian. When Beverly heard children asking for stories about kids like them, she was inspired to try her hand at writing children’s books!
Conrad has created an engaging biography where readers can see Cleary’s inspiration from her own childhood reflected in her books for children. The difficulty that Cleary had learning to read is shown in great detail, echoing the immense effort it took to learn. It is inspirational for children who may be having difficulty learning to read to see someone who eventually became one of the most famous children’s authors of all time having the same problems.
The art by Hohn is bright and friendly. The use of period clothing really helps place the book in the past visually and keeps the bright-eyed Beverly from feeling too modern. It also shows the great sense of humor that Cleary had throughout her life.
An inspiring story of triumph and achievement. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
This nonfiction picture book explores the inspiration behind Williams’ most famous poem as well as the life of the poet who wrote it. The book begins with Williams on his doctor’s rounds, noticing the red wheelbarrow that belonged to Mr. Thaddeus Marshall, who works harvesting and selling vegetables in Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams uses his spare time at work writing poems and noticing small things around him. He types between office visits and takes notes as he walks through the town. Then one glimpse out of a window on a rainy day created a moment that inspired one of the greatest poems.
Rogers writes a biography focused on Williams himself and on the inspiring white chickens and red wheelbarrow. She takes time to not only capture that iconic image once but several times on the page, showing how inspiration lingers and returns. She also makes sure to linger on how Williams works writing into his role as the town doctor and how he notices small things that inspire him.
The illustrations are done digitally and feel very organically with pencil and brush lines on each page. The colors are pastel and gentle, encouraging readers to look more closely and linger just as Williams himself was doing.
A nonfiction picture book about writing, poetry and life. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Grimes writes a searing verse memoir of her years growing up with a mother suffering from alcoholism and schizophrenia. Removed from her mother at a young age and separated from her older sister, Grimes found a loving foster family where she discovered the power of writing her feelings and experiences out on paper. She visited her mother occasionally during that time and they were eventually reunited when her mother got sober and remarried. But it wasn’t that simple or easy. Grimes was trapped in a home filled with a cycle of addiction, mental illness and sexual abuse from her stepfather. Told with a strong sense of hope and resilience, this book is a brave look back into a traumatic childhood.
Grimes has created a book that carries readers back into her previous experiences, showing how she survived, how writing helped, and how she found hope and strength in people other than her mother. Grimes has recreated some of her childhood and teen journals which were destroyed. In these small glimpses told in the voice of her youth she shows her confusion and strength vividly.
Throughout the book, Grimes mentions that she doesn’t have clear memories of much of her youth due to the trauma that was inflicted upon her. Her willingness to explore such painful subjects even though her memories are incomplete or entirely gone is a concrete example of her resilient spirit and hope.
A powerful and poetic look at trauma and the building of a new life. Appropriate for ages 16-adult.
Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson (9781534431515)
Hutchinson, author of several amazing novels for teens, shares a memoir of his teen years as he grapples with being gay and having depression. Hutchinson is open from the beginning of the book that it involves a suicide attempt. He states it with great empathy for both the reader and for his younger self. That tone of self-understanding plays through the novel, never allowing himself to become overly self-deprecating. Hutchinson speaks as a person engulfed in a society telling him that because he was gay, he was broken, focused only on sex, and would live a short life probably because of AIDS. Though he had a wonderful best friend, he could not see a future for himself. Along the way, he started to self harm, started smoking to gain a boy’s attention, and sunk deeper and deeper into depression and self loathing. The spiral is filled with pain and darkness, but the book is ultimately filled with hope and a way forward into life.
It is no surprise to his fans that Hutchinson has written a moving and deep memoir. However, it is amazing how far he is willing to explore his life as a teen, how open he is about all of the things he was feeling and experiencing, and how much he shares in these pages. He bares his entire soul here, in the hopes that it will help someone else find their way out of darkness too. I guarantee, it will.
Hutchinson shares how small decisions, individual conversations, new crushes, and tiny moments shape our lives. He is honest about how he damaged several relationships in his life, how he continued to be absent and self-absorbed, and how that too changed as he dealt with his depression. While it is a book of hope, it is also one about the hard work it takes to come back from the brink, how friends and family can help, and how some questions are simply too hard to ask.
Brave, fierce and incandescent. Appropriate for ages 15-19.
In 42 pages, Mac Barnett celebrates the 42 years of Margaret Wise Brown’s life and writing. This is not a traditional picture book biography, but instead a treasure of glimpses into moments in Brown’s life. Small details like her biting dog and her birth date are shared. Barnett also makes sure to point out unique things that Brown did as a child, like skinning a rabbit and wearing its fur. The rabbit element plays out across Brown’s life and writing, even publishing a book that was first published with a rabbit fur cover. These elements are all loosely woven into a story of a woman who wrote unique and strange books for children, odd enough not to be accepted by the New York Public Library. Still, it didn’t slow Brown down from writing and living her own unique life.
This book is incredible. Written with a conversational tone, inviting readers to see how writing for children needs to be expansive and go beyond cuteness and cuddles. Barnett, who also shares similar elements in his own writing for children, explores fascinating parts of Brown’s life and makes her unique voice the focus of the book. His writing is a study in how to have a strong voice in a children’s book, a narrative point of view, and yet also avoid being didactic at all, insisting that young readers think for themselves.
Jacoby’s illustrations are a great mix of showing Brown’s life, full pages of pastel and flowers, and other moments with bunnies in libraries. The mix is wonderfully odd and so exactly appropriate for a story about Brown herself.
I predict that this one is going to be win awards. It certainly should. Appropriate for ages 5-8.