The Fastest Girl on Earth! Meet Kitty O’Neil, Daredevil Driver by Dean Robbins

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The Fastest Girl on Earth! Meet Kitty O’Neil, Daredevil Driver by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (9780593125717)

As a child, Kitty O’Neil loved to go fast. She loved running, riding on the lawn mower with her father, and swimming and diving. Though she lost her hearing due to a childhood fever, it never slowed Kitty down. Kitty grew up to be a stuntwoman in movies. She also set records as the fastest water skier and boat racer. Then Kitty set her sights on being the fastest driver. Her car was called the Motivator and it was rocket powered, capable of going over 300 mph, if Kitty could steer it at that speed. The woman’s land speed record at the time was 308 mph. Kitty went 618 mph! She became an American hero in the 1970’s even having an action figure made in her likeness. Kitty continued to be a champion of children with disabilities and held records in an incredible range of sports.

Robbins’ book about Kitty O’Neil is just as fast paced as her records. His writing is brisk, opening the book with Kitty in her rocket car and closing the book with her record drive. This frames the story very successfully, as young readers will want to know what happens on that historic drive. Robbins also captures the breathlessness of the countdowns, the danger of the drive, and Kitty’s own fearlessness. It’s a marvelous rocket read of a book just right for the subject.

The art, done in pencil, watercolor, acrylic and digital, get readers right into the cockpit with O’Neil. They capture her joy at going fast and breaking records. With bright colors, they also show the dynamic moments of the countdowns, the acceleration, the determination and the eventual win.

A wild ride of book about a deaf woman driver who became a hero. Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers.

King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza

Cover for King of Ragtime.

King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza (9781534410367)

Released September 14, 2021.

Scott Joplin was a child who loved to listen to the sounds around him rather than using his own voice. He was the son of a man who was once enslaved. Their home was full of music with his father fiddling, his mother playing banjo and singing, and his siblings playing instruments too. Scott played the cornet. To find work, the family moved north to Texarkana where Giles found work laying tracks for the railway. Scott’s mother found work as a housemaid for a wealthy white family who happened to have a piano. When Scott came along to help, he saw the piano and started to play when he had time. Eventually, the Joplin family was able to purchase a piano for Scott and traded housework for lessons. Scott loved learning about the piano and music, but most of all he loved composing his own songs. He played all over town, and eventually made his way north to play in saloons and eventually in Chicago where he heard ragtime for the first time. Scott went to Sedalia, Missouri where he went to college and composed music. He tried to get his songs published and finally found a man willing to take a chance on a Black unknown composer. That’s how “Maple Leaf Rag” became a national sensation.

Constanza’s writing is full of rhythm and talks about music throughout. From his mother singing hymns to his family playing together to learning piano to getting work playing and composing, the entire book dances along to the importance of music in Joplin’s life. The writing also incorporates lots of sounds like the chirping of cicadas, the swish of brooms, the plink of the piano, and the OOM-pah! The writing is full of energy and tells the story of Joplin’s life with style.

The illustrations are bright and full of color and light. They have elements of quilts that fill the ground with patterns. The skies are blue with swirling clouds that dance in the sky. The towns are full of colorful buildings. Everything is inspiration for Joplin’s music, from the trains to the chickens to the flowers to the towns. It all comes together into one warm and bright world.

A jaunty and rhythmic biography of a musical legend. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

The Great Stink by Colleen Paeff

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The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem by Colleen Paeff, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (9781534449299)

It was 1858 and the Thames River in London smelled terrible. The problem was that the river was full of poop. The problem had started in 1500, when the sewers were emptied by men who shoveled them out at night. But the population kept on growing. By 1919, there were many more people in London and flush toilets are growing in popularity, but there is no way to get rid of all of the human feces, so some people connected their homes directly to the sewer, sending it all to the river. Cholera epidemics started killing thousands of people, but cholera is blamed on smelly air rather than polluted water, so they kept happening. In 1856, Bazalgette submits a plan to create large sewer pipes to take the sewage away from the river. His plan is finally approved in 1858 after a very hot summer causes the smell to get even worse.

Told with a merry tone, this book embraces the stink of history and shows how one man can change the lives of so many, rescuing them from disease and death. Paeff packs a lot of history into this picture book, making it all readable and fascinating through her use of historical quotes combined with a focused pared down version of what happened. Her writing is engaging and interesting, offering lots of information without ever overwhelming the story itself.

Carpenter’s art is just as stinky as can be. She captures the sewage entering the Thames, the miasma of stench coming off the river in the heat, and the grossness of dumped chamber pots. Against that unclean setting, a small baby is born and becomes an engineer who creates grand tunnels where the air is clear once again. Add in the macabre face of cholera and you have a book that is hard to look away from.

Fascinating, stinky and delightful. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Child of the Flower-Song People by Gloria Amescua

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Child of the Flower-Song People by Gloria Amescua, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (9781419740206)

Luz Jiménez was a child of the flower-song people, the Aztecs. She had listened intently to the stories told by the elders about their sacred mountains and streams and also about how the Spaniards had taken their lands away. Luz learned how to do the traditional work of her people, grinding corn on a metate, twisting yarn with her toes, weaving on a loom. She learned about the plants around her and what herbs were medicine. Luz longed to go to school, but it was forbidden for native children. Then the law changed and required schooling in the ways of the Spanish. Luz was a good student and learned much, still keeping the traditional tales alive as she shared them with the other students. At age 13, Luz was forced to flee the Mexican Revolution and live in Mexico City. There Luz became a model for artists, sharing her traditions in paintings and photographs. She longed to be a teacher, but was denied that opportunity. Instead she taught in a different way, through modeling, sharing her tales, and being a living link to the Aztecs.

This beautiful picture book pays homage to Luz Jiménez, a humble woman who became the face of her people. Amescua’s lovely Author’s Note shows the detailed research that went into this biographical picture book. That research is evident in the lovely prose she uses to share Luz’s story with a new generation. Her writing uses metaphors and evocative phrases to really show the impact that Luz’s presence has had as well as her strong connection to her heritage.

Tonatiuh’s art is always exquisite. Done in his own unique style, his illustrations mix modern materials with a folkloric feel. They work particularly well for this subject.

A stellar biographical picture book of a true teacher and heroine. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Sister Corita Kent by Matthew Burgess

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Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Sister Corita Kent by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kara Kramer (9781592703166)

Corita Kent was a remarkable pop-artist who was also a nun, a teacher and an activist. From a small child, Corita showed kindness and empathy for others and also a love of art and creativity. Her father wanted her to do something original, and Corita certainly did. She surprised her family by becoming a nun, discovering a love of teaching and training new teachers. She joined the art faculty at Immaculate Heart College, where she discovered a love of silkscreen printing. Soon her art was winning competitions. Corita continued to teach classes and make her own art, which spoke to social justice and against poverty and war. She transformed a rather formal celebration into one of bright colors and activity. Not everyone approved of what Corita was doing, and she surprised the people around her once again, asking to be released from her religious vows. She found places for her largest work, painted on a gigantic tank, and her smallest, a rainbow postage stamp.

While Kent may not be a household name, many of us have seen her work on the iconic postage stamp. This picture book embraces her unusual life, celebrating the decisions she made, the art she created and her voice for social change. The book cleverly pulls out elements of how Kent taught and created her art, offering unique perspectives gained by seeing the world in a fresh way. The writing here is engaging and offers a tone of delight as Kent continues to surprise and amaze.

The bright and vibrant art in the book shares elements of Kent’s own work. Her play with lettering and words appear throughout the illustrations of the book, filling tree trunks, coloring margins, and as posters on the walls. The entire book is a delight of collage, typography and riotous color.

A positive and affirming look at an artist who should be better known. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion.

The Story of Bodri by Hédi Fried

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The Story of Bodri by Hédi Fried, illustrated by Stina Wirsen (9780802855657)

Inspired by the author’s experiences during the Holocaust, this picture book takes a child’s view of the horrors of that time. Hédi grew up in Romania. She loved her dog Bodri, and he loved her most of all. She had a best friend who lived nearby. They had all sorts of things in common, except Hédi was Jewish and her friend went to church. When Adolf Hitler shouted on the radio, Hédi’s parents assured her that he would never come there. But his soldiers did come and Hédi was forbidden to play with her Christian friend. Soon the family was told to pack their belongings. They went to the train station, followed by Bodri, who had to be left behind. Hédi’s parents disappeared in the concentration camps but Hédi and her little sister survived. She went back home and found Bodri still waiting for her.

Fried survived several Nazi labor camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She lives in Sweden and continues to be an expert voice for democracy and anti-racism. This book was inspired by a question she received at one of her presentations about what happened to her dog. The book translates the larger racism and hatred of the Nazis into a personal story of the impact of the Nazis. Fried writes through a child’s eyes, a child watching her parents to gauge what is happening. Using her dog as an anchor as time passes is very moving as he continued his vigil through the seasons.

Wirsen’s art is haunting. There is an ethereal nature to it throughout the book even as the girls play in the park full of pinks and greens. The colors change to more somber as the Nazis arrive. Wirsen uses watercolors and prints to create her images. The juxtaposition of the girls after they are liberated from the camp to before they went in is both startling and heartrending.

A powerful look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a survivor and her dog. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers.

Unbound: The Life & Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott

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Unbound: The Life & Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (9780525648116)

Told by Joyce Scott, the twin sister of Judith, this picture book explores the closeness of the sisters as small children until they are separated for years. The two sisters shared everything with one another, playing together all the time. Then Joyce is sent to kindergarten and Judith is left behind. Judith has Down syndrome and has never spoken. Then her parents send Judith to a special school where she will live and learn to talk. They don’t visit for a long time and when they do, the school isn’t like other schools. There is no playground, no desks, no books. As they grow older, Joyce gets married and has children. She continues to think of Judith as being at her side all the time. Eventually, she is able to bring Judith out of the institution and to live with her. Joyce finds Judith an art program to be part of. Judith attends but won’t participate at all. Months go by until her teachers give her some natural materials and fabric. Suddenly, Judith is creating unique pieces of sculpture and is celebrated as an artist.

Full of sorrow and loss, this picture book examines the destructive nature of the systematic institutionalization of people with special needs to both the person institutionalized and their loved ones. Having Joyce herself narrate the book is powerful. The beautiful connection the sisters have in their young childhood forms a foundation of connection that allows her to rescue her sister decades later. Even as the book moves to when Judith finds her artistic voice, there is a melancholy to the years lost and the muting of her voice for so long.

Sweet’s illustrations are incredible and moving. She incorporates collage and also builds sculptures to pay homage to Scott’s work. Built with string, textiles, wire and wood, there is a celebratory nature to them of an art newly found. In other moments, Sweet captures wistfulness, longing and connection with light, shadow and color.

An extraordinary look at an artist who was almost lost. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Alfred A. Knopf.

Shaped by Her Hands: Potter Maria Martinez by Anna Harber Freeman

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Shaped by Her Hands: Potter Maria Martinez by Anna Harber Freeman and Barbara Gonzales, illustrated by Aphelandra (9780807575994)

Maria played in the fields while her parents worked, making clay bowls. When all of them cracked in the sun, she sought help from her Aunt Nicolasa who showed her the ancient Tewa way of making pots using clay mixed with volcanic ash and thanking Mother Earth for sharing clay with them. Maria practiced making pots for months before she was ready to have one fired with her aunt’s. Some pots don’t survive firing, so Maria was pleased when hers came out perfectly from the blaze. Maria grew up, married and had children, never stopping working with clay and pots. In 1908 an archaeologist asked if she could create a pot based on an ancient shard of pottery. Though Maria had never seen such a polished and black pot, she decided to try. After many attempts, her pot came out shiny and black. Maria was able to sell her pottery for the first time and soon they were selling as many as they could create, employing her entire family.

This picture book biography tells the story of an important Native American artist who served as a vital ambassador for the Tewa people and the ancient ways of making pottery. The book is written by one of Maria’s great grandchildren and an art teacher author. Their deep knowledge of Maria and art are evident on the pages with the details shared and the homage to Maria’s dedication for learning and teaching.

The illustrations glow with the sun of New Mexico, combined with deep blue skies and green plants. The illustrations are a stirring combination of the characters and beautiful landscapes full of sunset pinks, purples and oranges.

A lovely tribute to an important Native woman artist. Appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Albert Whitman & Company.

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson

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The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Evan Turk (9781419741302)

Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania and at age four saw his father taken banished for demanding workers’ rights. From a very young age, Ben drew, even though paper was scarce in Lithuania, so he drew in the margins. When his father ends up in America, he brings Ben, his mother and his brother to join him. Ben goes to school, learning a new alphabet instead of the Hebrew one that he learned in Lithuania. He is soon identified as a promising young artist at school, but his family must send him to work in order to survive. Ben works for a lithographer, hand-lettering signs while going to art school at night. But art school isn’t what he is looking for. They teach landscapes rather than the people and stories that Ben wants to paint. Inspired by stories of injustice, Ben painted about current events, creating series of paintings that while not pretty were inspiring. He went on to document the Great Depression using photography, hired by the government several times as an artist. Ben continued to paint the people who were invisible to others.

Levinson captures the story of Shahn’s life with a focus on what drove him to create art, linking it to tragedies in his homeland and his family. Her writing is full of admiration for his hard work and insistence that he paint what he wanted to rather than what he was being told to do. His belief in sharing the stories of those less fortunate shines in her words, revealed by her stellar writing that is both clear and also evocative.

Turk’s art pays homage to Shahn’s throughout the book. Made with gouache, acrylic, pencil, chalk and linoleum block prints, the illustrations are textured and layered. They include versions of some of Shahn’s most iconic works. Turk’s use of bold color, deep shadow and light create a marvelous background for Shahn’s life story.

A great picture book biography that speaks to the intersection of art and political statement. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.