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

Cover image for The People’s Painter.

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.

Walking Toward Peace: The True Story of a Brave Woman Called Peace Pilgrim by Kathleen Krull

Cover image for Walking Toward Peace.

Walking Toward Peace: The True Story of a Brave Woman Called Peace Pilgrim by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Annie Bowler (9781947888265)

In a world of war, Peace Pilgrim changed her name and decided to walk 25,000 in the name of peace. She gave up her possessions, her fancy dresses and shoes. She prepared for years, learning about foraging in the wild, practicing good deeds for neighbors, and volunteering for peace groups. She began her walk on New Year’s Day leaving Pasadena, California in simple sneakers and a blue shirt that said Peace Pilgrim. She carried only possessions that fit in her pockets. On her journey, she stopped and talked with everyone. Soon she was asked to speak with school groups and then with other organizations. She relied on strangers for food and would accept a place to sleep too, though she loved to sleep outside under the stars. She crossed from California to New York, but that was just her first pilgrimage. She kept on walking, heading for her 25,000 mile total. Even after she reached that milestone, she kept on walking for peace.

I am so pleased to have a picture book written about Peace Pilgrim. I was one of the lucky people who got to hear her speak at a tiny gathering in central Wisconsin. My family hosted her, driving her to our rural home and sharing time with her. It’s an experience I hold in my heart and continue to be inspired by. This picture book captures her spirit beautifully and shows how one person can make a difference simply by speaking out and walking forth.

The art is compelling, showing the long routes that Peace Pilgrim took, the signature blue apron she wore, and the connections she formed wherever she went. She is truly a national treasure, someone we can all look towards for inspiration on a life well spent in service to peace.

A book that shows that heroes come in all forms. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Flyaway Books.

The Elephants Come Home by Kim Tomsic

Cover image of The Elephants Come Home.

The Elephants Come Home by Kim Tomsic, illustrated by Hadley Hooper (9781452127835)

Based on a true story, this picture book shows the immense connection and love that can come from saving elephants. Lawrence Anthony and Francoise Malby owned an animal sanctuary, Thula Thula, in Africa. In 1999, they rescued a herd of wild elephants who were causing damage where they had been living. But it was not as simple as creating a space for the elephants and moving them in. The elephants were not sure they wanted to stay, and certainly didn’t want to be penned in. They made that clear after destroying their first enclosure and escaping. Lawrence and Francoise had to act quickly to avoid the elephants being slaughtered by hunters, so they called in the help of a helicopter, who found them and managed to move them back to Thula Thula. Lawrence decided to camp with the elephants, forming a bond with their matriarch, Nana. Once that happened, they were able to leave their enclosure and head into the full Thula Thula sanctuary with the other animals. They could visit the farmhouse whenever they wanted too. It was when tragedy struck though that the true connection to the elephants became clear.

This incredibly moving story shows the connection that can happened between human and animal, one that goes both directions through gentleness, protection and a deep understanding of one another’s value. The patience that Lawrence shows through the book is notable and is what allows him to bond with the herd. People who already love elephants will find new knowledge here about conservation, protection and how very intelligent they are.

The art feels like a series of prints, each created with watercolor, ink and printmaking. The colors are magnificent from the blues of late night to the dusty oranges of African day to the lush greens of Thula Thula itself. The elephants are drawn with real character, their hugeness and their emotions clear in each image.

A remarkable story worth enjoying with your own herd. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

A Plan for the People by Lindsey McDivitt

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A Plan for the People by Lindsey McDivitt, illustrated by Charly Palmer (9780802855022)

This picture book biography of the great Nelson Mandela explores his adult life as first an attorney and then a prisoner and then president. Mandela defended people against the unjust White laws of apartheid that drove dark-skinned South Africans into impoverished communities and took away their rights. He joined the African National Congress, helping draft their Freedom Charter. Mandela was a leader in the fight for justice, soon arrested as an activist, tried and sent to Robben Island. Mandela was placed in a small, cold cell and separated from those he loved, allowed just one visitor in his first year and only two letters sent and received. But Mandela and others created ways to communicate and continue to learn. He saw ways to open the hearts of the guards in the prison, learning about their history as well as his own. Along the way, they gained more freedoms in the prison, eventually getting released as international pressure mounted. Mandela was elected President and formed a new multiracial government with new freedoms for everyone.

McDivitt shares in her Author’s Note that she was born in South Africa as a white person. Her background gives her an interesting lens of understanding from which to write a biography of Nelson Mandela. She does so with a real depth, allowing Mandela’s decades in prison to form a lot of the book and also focusing on the injustice of apartheid and its ramifications on its victims. Throughout her prose, she uses vivid imagery from South Africa that help readers better understand the impact and power of Mandela.

Palmer’s art beautifully captures Mandela throughout his adult life. From the days in prison to connecting with fellow prisoners and guards to eventually donning his signature vibrant tunics as President. The illustrations show the injustice of apartheid, the horrors of the prison, and the rise of Mandela as a world leader.

An important look at Mandela’s life and work. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans.

The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy by Kekla Magoon

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The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy by Kekla Magoon, illustrated by Laura Freeman (9780062912510)

This picture book biography tells the life story of the first Black justice on the Supreme Court. It begins with Marshall changing his first name in second grade from Thoroughgood. From a child, Marshall knew that there were things that needed to change in the world around him, including segregation. Marshall discovered a love of the law and of debate in school, before heading to Lincoln University for college. He wanted to attend law school at the University of Maryland, but they did not admit Black students, so he attended Howard University, another Black college. As a young lawyer, Marshall won a case to allow a Black student to attend the University of Maryland. He worked on all sorts of civil rights cases with his most famous being arguing before the Supreme Court against school segregation and winning. He argued seven cases before the Supreme Court in his career, winning new rights for Black people along the way. Marshall was asked by JFK to become a judge and was himself sworn in as a member of the Supreme Court in 1967.

Magoon has created a focused and interesting biography for young readers in this nonfiction picture book. She takes a man of many accomplishments and highlights those of the most importance. By starting in his early years, she shows how a passion at a young age can become a career and a way to make a difference in our world. Her writing is insightful and fast moving, taking us through his career and personal life without her pace dragging at all.

Freeman’s illustrations focus on Marshall and the people around him. Even on the pages focused on his education, Marshall stays right in the center of the images rather than the university buildings. This focus on Marshall as a person centers the book visually, matching the text. The captures famous faces beyond Marshall’s in a recognizable yet simple way.

A resounding success of a biography. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.

Jump at the Sun: The True Life of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston by Alicia D. Williams

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Jump at the Sun: The True Life of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston by Alicia D. Williams, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara (9781534419131)

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.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble by Isabelle Marinov

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The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble by Isabelle Marinov, illustrated by Deborah Marcero (9781592703173)

Born in the late 1800s, Edwin loved the stars from a young age. At eight, he was given a telescope by his grandfather, and they headed into the Missouri night to see the stars up close. Edwin was a good student who loved math and learning about the universe, but his father wanted him to do something else with his life. So Edwin studied law before becoming a high school teacher. It wasn’t until after his father’s death that Edwin felt he could study astronomy. His first job was at Mount Wilson Observatory, the world’s largest telescope. There, he spent years studying the Andromeda nebula, eventually proving that it was a separate galaxy. Edwin continued to classify and learn more about galaxies, discovering that they move away from each other and that the further away they are, the faster they move. Eventually, the Hubble Telescope was launched, named after this man who studied the stars and increased our understanding of the universe.

In her debut picture book, Marinov shows real skill in taking a lifetime of accomplishments and making them accessible for young readers. She writes with a tone that shares the facts of Hubble’s life but also shares his personality, his wonder at the universe and the hard work and resilience it took for him to make his discoveries. As Hubble and others ask big questions about the universe, these statements are done in a silver print that elevates them and will have the reader marveling along.

The illustrations are done in a whimsical style that uses fine ink lines to share small details of large telescopes and landscapes. Using the darkest of black ink, Marcero illuminates her pages with stars that sweep across the paper. One gatefold opens to reveal a series of nebulae to wonder at.

A strong and interesting look at one of the most famous astronomers. Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion.

Try It!: How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff

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Try It!: How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Giselle Potter (9781534460072)

When Frieda Caplan started working at the Seventh Street produce market in Los Angeles, there were only potatoes, bananas, tomatoes and apples for sale. Caplan thought it might be work giving something new a try. So she started selling mushrooms. Soon she was known as the Mushroom Queen and had her own stall at the market. She became known as a person who would taste anything and started selling kiwis, jicama, blood oranges, Asian pears and much more. Over the years she introduced consumers to many new things, including seedless watermelons in 1962, horned melon in 1984, and fresh lychee in 2015. Caplan’s daughters now work with her in her produce stall, introducing finds of their own and offering their unique and informed view of what the next big thing might be.

Rockliff offers a dynamic look at the woman who changed how America eats fruits and vegetables. Her fearless approach to trying new things combined with a deep instinct about what will work for the market. Beautifully, the book focuses on Caplan herself but also richly shows the things that she introduced to American stores. Readers are sure to find new fruits and vegetables on the pages here, and perhaps be brave enough to try then when they make their way to supermarkets across the country.

Potter’s illustrations are richly colored and warm. They show Caplan in the 1950s when she started and then steadily move forward in time, nicely showing the time period through the clothing of the people. The fruits and vegetables are rainbow bright and nicely labeled with their name and the year that Caplan discovered them for the U.S. market.

Bright, intelligent and full of juicy details. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís

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Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís (9781324015741)

As Czechoslovakia is taken over by the Nazis in 1938, one quiet man stepped forward and saved almost 700 children. At age 29, Nicky was invited to visit Prague while on a ski trip. At the same time, Vera was growing up outside of Prague, happily adopting stray cats. They were one of the only Jewish families in the town, but that didn’t matter in their lives. The in October the German army marched into Czechoslovakia and Vera’s parents learned of a British man who was saving children. That man was Nicky. Understanding that he could do something, he worked in Prague making lists of children and finding train connections. When he returned to London, he found foster families for the children and acquire visas and tickets with his own money, sometimes needing to create his own stamps. Vera left home with 76 other children on a train. In total, 669 children reached London safely. No one heard of Nicky’s quiet work until his wife found the records. Then Nicky’s work was revealed to everyone on a popular TV show, and his life is still celebrated.

Sís has created a haunting yet also celebratory nonfiction picture book that describes the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia through a child’s eyes and also offers the lens of a man who realizes the potential human disaster about to occur and does something to rescue the children. The tension between the two is beautifully done, creating a deep understanding of what was at stake and the speed at which something needed to happen. The book is one that will make you actually cry, particularly towards the end when the survivors are there to thank Nicky for what he did for them. Crushingly moving.

As always Sís’s art is entirely its own style. He offers overhead maps of Vera’s small town and her life. He also shares maps of Europe and whimsical images that are almost folkloric in their storytelling. It’s a lovely mix of story, truth and heroism.

Truly remarkable, this is a picture book to read with tissues nearby. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Norton Young Readers.