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.
Picturing America: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Art by Hudson Talbott (9780399548673)
In this picture book biography, the life of artist Thomas Cole is explored. It begins with his early years in England and his love of drawing. He and his sister explored the area they lived in, looking for new things to draw. But when the Industrial Revolution came, it brought hard times for his family. So Thomas moved to America where his family settled down in Steubenville, Ohio and opened a workshop making decorative items. Thomas handpainted many of them. When he saw a book of fine art for the first time, his dream was born. He went on the road, selling his portraits. He eventually got a patron who sent him on a journey up the Hudson River where Thomas painted the wilderness. Soon his paintings were the toast of New York City. Thomas went on to travel to Europe and was inspired to paint a series of paintings about the fall of an empire. Thomas continued to capture the spirit of America and founded his own school Hudson River school of painting along the way.
Talbott tells the complicated story of Cole’s life with a refreshing ease. He has a real clarity in the story he is telling, keeping the tale focused on the results of Cole’s early struggles and then when he obtains success on the new inspirations Cole found on his travels. The book reads well and Cole’s story demonstrates tenacity and resilience as he followed a winding way toward being well known. It is also the story of a young America, what it said to a young immigrant and how its wilderness was worth preserving.
The illustrations combine a friendly lightness even during Cole’s struggles with Cole’s own paintings. It is a treat to see his actual paintings as part of the book. They are hinted at in other sections, but when it truly is his own they are dazzling. They demonstrate firmly why his art caught on and he became a famous painter.
A particularly timely book about an immigrant artist who loved America and caught her essence in paint. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (9781524717513)
The team who created The Noisy Paint Box take on another picture book biography of a famous artist. This time the book is about Chagall who was born in Belarus. Even from a young age he was interested in being an artist. He is sent to school for art, but doesn’t conform to the Russian instruction, filling his canvas with color rather than Greek studies. He moved to Paris where his entire life changed with new friends and a new French name. When he heads back to Russia for a family event, he is trapped there. He meets and marries his wife, the two of them eventually leaving Soviet Russia for Paris again. Later, he moves to America where he uses different media to create art, eventually creating his well-known stained glass windows.
Rosenstock brilliantly uses the theme of windows to structure this biography. Because Chagall traveled to various places in his life, this proves to be a vibrant way to follow his life from the early days to his later work. Throughout, readers will be shown that Chagall does not fit into Russia’s expectations for him and for his art. Colors are also used to show the differences between Chagall and Russia. Windows and colors beautifully frame this story, making it approachable and compelling.
The illustrations pay just the right amount of homage to Chagall without trying to imitate his work. The illustrations are lush and detailed. They are filled with gorgeous colors that almost illuminate the pages and certainly convey the beauty of Russia, Paris and Chagall’s artwork and life.
A rich look by an award-winning duo, this picture book is a great addition to artist biographies for youth. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Alfred A. Knopf Books.
Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World by Gary Golio (9781627795128)
Carlos Santana was born into a musical family with a father who was a popular mariachi performer. Carlos started learning to read music at age five and to play the violin at age six. But his father is often gone, playing musical gigs around Mexico. His father sends money home to the family, and eventually Carlos’ mother decides to head to America with the children. Carlos earns money playing music for the tourists, but his heart isn’t in it. It isn’t until he hears American blues music for the first time that he discovers his own kind of music. Carlos tries to play with his father’s band but it does not go well. Eventually, his father realizes that his son needs a new instrument, one that goes with his own blend of Latin and blues.
Golio tells a story of Santana’s childhood, focusing on the impact that music had throughout his early days but also the importance of finding his own musical voice that is entirely unique. The relationship between father and son is a critical one in this picture book biography, resonating throughout Santana’s childhood. Golio tells a complex story and yet keeps it straightforward for a young audience.
The illustrations are done in mixed media of torn paper, acrylics and printed inks. They are layered and deep, the colors swirling on the page. The faces of the various family members and Santana are particularly arresting. The art has a great vibrancy and a feel of freedom around it.
A great pick for libraries looking for quality biographies of musicians. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt & Co.
Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by John Holyfield (9781600609695)
Born into slavery in 1810, Bill Lewis grew up on a plantation in Tennessee. There, he was taught to be a blacksmith and soon earned so much money that his owner, Colonel Lewis, allowed him to keep some money for himself. Bill worked for years saving his coins, determined to purchase freedom for himself and his family. Eventually he asked Colonel Lewis if he could rent himself out. The Colonel agreed and charged Bill $350 a year for his limited freedom. Bill purchased a blacksmith shop in Chattanooga and became the first African-American blacksmith in the city. He worked long hours and eventually paid for his wife’s freedom, ensuring that all future children would be born free. He then purchased his own freedom and that of his one son born into slavery. But Bill Lewis was not done yet and keep on working hard until he freed every member of his family, including his siblings and mother.
The determination and tenacity of Bill Lewis is indescribable. In a society designed to hold him down, he managed to find a way forward to freedom. Hubbard makes sure that readers understand how unusual this arrangement was and how gifted Lewis was as a blacksmith. The text keeps the story of Lewis’ life focused and well paced. It is a very readable biography.
The illustrations are rich and luminous. The sharing of emotions and holding emotions back play visibly on the page, demonstrating how much had to be hidden and not disclosed in order to purchase freedom. It also shows in a very clear way how limited that freedom was.
A great addition to nonfiction picture book shelves. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Lee & Low Books.
Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement by Stephanie Roth Sisson (9781626728196)
This nonfiction picture book begins in much the same way that Rachel’s childhood days started: birdsong, insects, forest exploration and insects. Rachel loved to look at the world from the big view and then to kneel down and look very closely at nature. She loved spring days best, returning home after dark to supper and her big family. As the seasons turned, Rachel watched and documented them all, growing bigger herself. She headed off to college to become a writer, until she discovered the microscopic world which led her to science. She worked as a scientist, diving under the sea and then writing books about it. Soon though, she realized that things were changing and species were disappearing. This led to her most important book, Silent Spring, which cautioned about the impact of chemicals on the ecosystem.
Sisson encapsulates Carson’s life in a very approachable way. The first part of the book focuses on Carson’s childhood love of nature and being outside. The text focuses on what Carson sees and experiences. As the book moves to her adult life, the text is about bravery and taking on the unknown. It then moves to her realization of what is happening in nature and her tenacity in figuring out what is going on. Throughout, this is the picture of a girl and woman who loves nature, thinks deeply and writes beautifully enough to change the opinions of a nation.
The illustrations are simple and lovely. They show all of the sounds of nature when Carson is a young child. Those same rich experiences are shown with the ghostly figures of animals that have disappeared due to chemicals. There is no mistaking the warmth of Carson’s home and family and then the strength that it took for her to stand strong in the face of people’s doubts.
A great picture book biography about an amazing woman, this is a timely read. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.
Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record Setting Dive of the Bathysphere by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Katherine Roy (9780316393829)
Otis loved the ocean since he was a boy. He experimented with different ways to dive lower and lover in the water. Will didn’t discover the ocean until later in life, spending time in the woods, trekking the world and climbing volcanoes. Otis heard that Will wanted to dive deep into the ocean and with his background in machines knew that Will would need a very special submersible to survive. Otis reached out to Will again and again until Will agreed to see him. Otis built the machine and Will planned the expedition. The two tall men managed to squeeze inside the small space and then down they went into the deep. Lower and lower they went, creaking and remembering to breathe. They reached 800 feet and then returned to the surface, smiling.
Rosenstock has created a wonderful text for this book that captures the importance of teamwork and connecting with others who have a similar passion but different skills. The differences between the two men are highlighted and then it is even more powerful when the two come together and work on a common goal. I particularly enjoy Will supporting Otis as they descend into the depths. That same support of remembering to breathe is very effectively used to create drama as the depth increases, since readers too may be holding their breath. The art by Roy is exceptional, adding to the drama of the tale by showing the Bathysphere as isolated, suspending in the dark water. The two men and the contortions they go through to fit and work together in the small space are also charmingly captured in the illustrations.
A winner of a science read. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.