The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby (9780062393449)
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.
Reviewed from library copy.
Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) by Gary Golio, illustrated by Ed Young (9780763697617)
Growing up on the streets of London, Charlie Chaplin was raised by a single mother who performed as a singer. At age five, Charlie himself started to perform in place of his mother as her voice quit. The family ended up in the poorhouse and when they managed to get back out, Charlie went to school. That was where he learned of his love of attention and the spotlight. At age nine, Charlie joined a boys theater troupe and among other jobs, he worked his way up on stage. Eventually, he made his way to the United States. He starred in a movie but when people in the industry saw how young he was, they doubted him. With one clever costume choice though, Charlie Chaplin invented his iconic tramp character.
Golio’s poetic approach to this nonfiction picture book suits the subject completely. It has a sense of lightness and playfulness with plenty of optimism in the face of hardship. Even as Charlie’s childhood turns bleak, there are moments of light and wonder too. The writing is rich and invites readers to better understand the subject and where he came from. I’d recommend sharing some Chaplin clips with children so they can watch the genius at work. Young’s illustrations are exceptional. The images are bold and full of strong graphical elements. Using colorful silhouettes, they play with light and dark, whimsy and reality.
A mix of humor and sadness, just as Chaplin would have wanted it. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar (9780062748683)
The deep impact and life of librarian Pura Belpre is shown in this picture book biography. The first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, Pura entered the job with a deep understanding of her native folklore and the power of storytelling with children. But the shelves of the library did not have any of the Puerto Rican tales. So Pura sets off to fix that as well as demonstrating ways to tell stories using puppets. Soon her first book is published and she can use it when she travels to different library branches to share her stories. Pura gets married to a musician and the two of them travel to different cities to perform his music and her stories. When her husband dies, Pura returns to New York City to discover that the stories she planted years ago have germinated something bigger.
Denise writes with a tone of wonder as she tells of this librarian who created her own way to tell the stories she loved. The text is infused with Spanish in a way that allows for comprehension and also clearly ties this book to its Puerto Rican subject. The text reads like poetry, gamboling across the page filled with activity and Pura’s own decisiveness.
The illustrations are rich and vibrant. They depict the library, Pura’s storytelling with children, and the subject matter of her stories. Filled with textures and deep colors, the illustrations pay close attention to the time period of the book and yet have a playful lightness to them as well.
A strong picture book biography of a remarkable librarian. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon by Miranda Paul and Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (9781512449143)
When Tantoh was young, he visited his grandmother’s farm and tried to plant onions on his own. They shriveled and never grew, but it inspired him to learn more about all sorts of things. As a teen, his father got him his how shovel and gardening supplies even though his father was ill. Tantoh is called Farmer by his classmates and takes pride in it, even writing it on his school uniform. His brother encourages him not to be a farmer, wanting him to get a good job in an office with high scores on his exam. But Tantoh is drawn to be a farmer and deliberately fails his exams. He starts working on the land and someone pays for him to go to college and study agriculture. At college, Tantoh contracts typhoid and it takes seven years for him to fully recover. This shows him the value of clean water. He goes to the United States to study, returning to Cameroon to build gardens that will hold water in the soil and a catchment to capture spring water for a village. One project leads to another and now Farmer Tantoh has many young farmers wanting to learn from him.
This nonfiction picture book offers a close and personal look at an environmental hero who changed the face of Cameroon and brought water conservation and clean drinking water to his country. Farmer was clearly pressured as a young man not to follow his dreams of being a farmer, so this book looks at following one’s dreams and having the ability to live the life you wish to lead. The book also looks at barriers to his success such as his battle with typhoid, which also serves to speak to his strength, courage and resilience.
The illustrations in the book are done in mixed media with paper collage, paint, pen and pencil. The images range from the hills of Cameroon to images of Tantoh as a child, student and adult. The pictures are filled with bright colors, strong shapes and vibrant design.
A look at a man who changed his country by following his dream. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Millbrook Press.
Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (9781250127730)
This biographical picture book shares the story of Janet Collins, the first African-American principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera House. Growing up in the 1930s, Collins ran into segregation and racism as she followed her dream to be a dancer. Though she was excluded from some dance schools and also asked to lighten her skin, she found her way to a school that accepted her thanks to her immense work ethic and talent. Collins became a principal dancer in 1951 after being noticed by the ballet master from the Met when he saw her perform.
Meadows has written a picture book biography that reads like a story book. She uses a repetitive structure that echoes that of folklore tales to make the book very readable and approachable for young children. Each new stanza in the book starts with “This is…” and shows a point in Collins’ life. Within each stanza there are also rhyming couplets that add to the spirit of the book. The structure works to make a book that shares aloud well and invites readers fully into this historical tale.
The illustrations by Glenn are digitally rendered. They range from dramatic images of Collins on stage or streetcars at night to more ethereal images of dancers and times with her family. The illustrations place the story firmly in mid-century America.
A well-written nonfiction picture book that tells the story of one remarkable artist. Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt.
Let ‘Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James (9781541541801)
George Fletcher moved to Pendleton, Oregon, a place where there weren’t a lot of African-Americans. He made friends with the children from the Umatilla Indian Reservation and learned how to train horses with gentleness. George started riding in competitions at age 16, though he was often shut out of competitions because of the color of his skin or judged unfairly. He got his chance to really show off his skill at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, the biggest rodeo in the Northwest. He made the top three finalists for the Saddle Bronc Championship. He outrode the other two competitors, and when the white person was named champion the crowd booed. One man in the crowd decided it wasn’t alright and sold small pieces of George’s hat to the crowd for $5 each. He turned the money over to George and it ended up being more than the grand prize. George was crowned the “People’s Champion” that day.
Nelson writes with a lovely western twang in this nonfiction picture book. She captures the spirit of the west in the words she uses and in particular in her metaphors. George took to the ways of the Umatilla tribes “like a wet kitten to a warm brick.” Ranching suited George “like made-to-measure boots.” These are just two examples of the vivid way that Nelson uses language to firmly place her book in its setting. She also creates a compelling portrait of Fletcher and faces the inherent racism of the system head on.
The illustrations by James are full of color and motion. Created with oil on board, they are a stunning mix of movement, depth and history. One can almost see the action playing out from the lines he uses. Stunning
A strong picture book about racism, horses, rodeos and heroism. Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.
Elvis Is King! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Red Nose Studio (9780399554704)
This picture book biography features a perfect match-up of author and illustrator. It tells the story of Elvis’ life from a young boy singing in church and in talent shows to him becoming a star. It is the story of a boy growing up poor with a father in jail and discovering many of life’s joys like gospel music and hamburgers. When the family moves to Memphis, Elvis needs to work to make money to keep them housed and fed. As a teenager, he turns himself into something new, coloring his hair black and adding his trademark hair wax. He falls in love, discovers blues music, and decides to be the biggest star in music. The speed of his journey into stardom is incredible, as he gets more inspiration for his unique music style.
Winter writes with a focused poetic style here, each page a short poem about Elvis’ life. Winter captures the poverty that Elvis is born into without romanticizing it at all. His story is particularly captivating because of how quickly he went from being entirely unknown to being a star. Another fascinating piece of the story is how Elvis realized that he needed to move and shake his hips to be able to sing the way he did.
Red Nose Studio has put their signature style in this book, elevating it into something really special that children will love to explore. There are certain page turns that are particularly effective, like the one where in a single turn of the page Elvis emerges with his well-known look. Red Nose completely captures the way that Elvis moves in their clay figures, something entirely remarkable for a still photograph.
A great pick for libraries, I’d recommend sharing some of Elvis’ music alongside the book. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo (9781452141343)
Alice Guy-Blache was the first woman film-maker in the world. When motion pictures were first invented, they were used to show dull things like people boarding a train. Alice saw an opportunity to use them to tell stories, like the stories she had loved since she was a child. Alice figured out how to run film backward to show people flying upwards among other clever tricks. She made colored films by hand and created the first movies with sound. Alice moved to America with her new husband and discovered that no one had ever heard of her there! So she set out to create more films and eventually opened her own studio in New York State. Unfortunately, everything changed when Hollywood became the place for movies and Alice had to return to France without even a movie camera. Still, she had one last story to tell, her own.
This eye-opening picture book biography will introduce readers to an amazing woman whose vision of what movies could be led the way to new developments and implementations. Most importantly, Alice realized that film could be used to tell stories and set out to do just that. Throughout her life and this book, Alice shows a fierce determination, artistic eye, and a desire to share her imagination with others.
The art by Ciraolo is bright and full of action. It shows vintage images of ads as well as the brightness of Alice’s ideas. Some of the images take an entire page while others are small vignettes of big moments in Alice’s life. The variety makes for a dynamic book visually.
An introduction to a woman that we should all know. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.
So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Daniel Minter (9781626728721)
Isabella grew up in slavery, sold away from her mother when she was nine. She did hard labor for years, sometimes with no shoes in the winter and other times with no sleep at night because of the work expected of her. One year after she had been forced to marry a man and had five children, she was promised her freedom. But freedom didn’t come and so she escaped with her baby. She arrived at the home of two kind people, who stood by her in her escape and paid for the freedom of Isabella and her baby. When her son was sold away by her old master, Isabella went to court to have him returned to her. As time went by, she took the name Sojourner Truth and started to speak publicly against slavery. She fought many battles for equality, standing tall and speaking the truth.
This book aches with pain, loss, and grief. The book is broken into sections, each starting with an evocative phrase about slavery, that shows what is ahead. These poetic phrases add so much to Sojourner Truth’s biography, pulling readers directly into the right place in their hearts to hear her story. Schmidt’s writing doesn’t flinch from the damage of slavery and its evil. He instead makes sure that every reader understands the impact of slavery on those who lived and died under it.
Minter’s art is so powerful. He has created tender moments of connection, impactful images of slavery, and also inspiring moments of standing up for what is right. The images that accompany Schmidt’s poetic phrases are particularly special, each one staring right at the reader and asking them to connect.
A riveting biography of one of the most amazing Americans in our history. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.