Inspiring Women in 3 Picture Book Biographies

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez, illustrated by Felicita Sala (9780399557262)

Ever since she was a little girl, Joan Procter loved lizards and other reptiles and amphibians. She dismissed dolls in favor of her animals, even having a baby alligator as a pet and taking it to school with her. But Joan was born in the late 1800s, so girls were not expected to study science, still she sought out the curator of reptiles and fish at the Natural History Museum rather than going to dances. With England at war, Joan was asked to work at the museum and eventually took over as curator. She designed the Reptile House at the London Zoo, using her artistic and scientific skills and created a habitat for their new Komodo dragons. Joan grew especially fond of Sumbawa, one of the Komodo dragons, who was gentle enough to walk outside with her and attend tea parties with children.

This picture book biography takes just the right tone about Joan’s life, filled with delight at her bringing an alligator to school and also relishing in her series of high-profile successes. The final pages of the book offer more details about Joan’s life and her early death at age 34. It also has more information about Komodo dragons and a robust bibliography. The illustrations has just the right mix of playfulness and science, showing the reptiles up close and also Joan’s own connection with them.

A brilliant look at an amazing woman who broke into science thanks to her skill and passion. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Alfred A. Knopf and Edelweiss.)

A Lady Has the Floor by Kate Hannigan

A Lady Has the Floor by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Alison Jay (9781629794532)

The incredible and impressive life of Belva Lockwood is depicted in this nonfiction picture book. Belva grew up playing outside with the boys and soon became a teacher in her community. Though women did not attend college, Belva did and graduated with honors in 1857. She taught school, but didn’t like that the girls in the class were not called on or asked to recite in front of the class. She worked with Susan B. Anthony to demand that New York public schools teach public speaking to all students and that girls be able to have physical education as well. Belva went to law school in a time when women were not allowed to be lawyers. She was at first denied her diploma, though she finished her courses. Even after becoming an attorney, some judges refused to hear her in their courtrooms. In 1879, Belva convinced law makers for women’s rights to be attorneys and got the laws changed. Belva fought for women’s rights to vote as well, becoming the first woman to run for president in 1884.

Belva Lockwood is a woman that we should all know better than we do. This biography of her is filled with impressive moments, ones that set her apart from even the other women working on the same issues. Belva is incredibly tenacious and resilient, never giving up and managing to get change to happen after years of work. She is a great model for today’s women’s rights movements. The illustrations by Jay have her signature folk style with cracked paint that perfectly evoke the time period and invite readers into the past.

A biography of an inspiring figure in American her-story. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington (9780062651730)

As a little girl, Dr. Mae Jemison dreamt of becoming an astronaut. Her mother in particular supported her dreams even when one of her teachers explained that someone like Mae should consider being a nurse instead. Looking at Dr. Jemison’s career through the lens of her childhood dreams makes for a powerful picture book for children who have their own big dreams for their futures. The focus here is on staying true to your passions and not allowing others to dash your dreams before you even begin to try. The mantra from Jemison’s mother is “If I can dream it, if I can believe in it, and if I work hard for it, anything is possible.”

Told in very simple sentences, this picture book biography is for younger children than many biographies. The illustrations have a luscious watercolor palette with images filled with stars and colors. A great pick to share aloud with young children and talk about dreams. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Review: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (InfoSoup)

Rashad is just minding his own business, getting chips after school, when he is suddenly accused of shoplifting after a white woman trips over him. He ends up being brutally beaten by the police officer in the store and has to be hospitalized. At the same time, Quinn is heading out to a party with his friends from school and witnesses the beating first hand. Quinn considers the officer involved and his younger brother close personal friends and struggles with what he has seen. A video of the incident goes viral and Rashad finds himself at the center of the Black Lives Matter discussion. Both Rashad and Quinn have to figure out whether they are willing to stand up for change and what that means for each of them.

I have heard incredible praise for this book and it is all completely true. Reynolds and Kiely tell their story in alternating chapters, each narrated by one of the two teens. The book is so strong, the voices of each of the narrators are distinct and clear. The book fights stereotypes over and over again. It is done with care and consideration, each choice that is made fights against what our culture believes to be true. It is done though with such certainty too that the reader doesn’t notice that the very structure of the story itself is part of its message.

This is a stunning read. The authors do not duck away from the complexity of the questions being asked, instead adding nuance in some instances. Rashad’s father is a police officer and the story of why he left the force will resonate and show just how insidious societal racism is even in the African-American community itself. The two main characters also face difficult decisions but very different ones. The book is difficult, challenging and vital.

This is a must-read book for teens. It would make a great platform for important discussions that need to continue in America. Brave, incredible and riveting. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

nelson mandela

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

In a way that only Kadir Nelson could capture, this book tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s life, imprisonment and how he became the inspiration he is.  This is a very humanizing tale of Mendela, showing his childhood before his father’s death and then his move across South Africa to study under a powerful chief.   Mandela attended school and then got involved in fighting apartheid.  The book follows him as he is jailed the first time and as he rises to be a threat to those in power and goes into hiding.  Mandela returned to South Africa to continue the fight and is then jailed again, doing heavy labor.  After being in prison for over 27 years, Mandela was freed.  His passion for righting the wrongs of apartheid and speaking for equality of all people shines from every page.

Nelson tells the story of Mandela in verse that is factual but also compelling.  He captures the long time spent in prison in a way that children will be able to understand.  Cold meals, thin blankets and beating rocks into dust.  It shows the futility and the harshness with such clarity.  Nelson’s verse also has a great sense of awe for this man and what he has accomplished, that too makes it a very special, honest book.

As always, Nelson’s images are simply wondrous.  Here they seem to shine from within whenever Mandela is part of the image.  As you can see from the cover illustration, there is all of the human inside his art; it radiates from his work.  Shown with detail, interesting perspectives, and ending with a sense of celebration, Nelson’s art is a standout.

This is the story of Nelson Mandela captured fully in a picture book that celebrates all of his accomplishments and what he stands for as a human being.  Beautiful.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: I Too Am America by Langston Hughes

i too am america

I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Collier marries the famous poem by Hughes with the story of the African-American Pullman porters, who served the wealthy white patrons aboard trains.  The poem speaks to the dream of freedom and equality that we are moving towards but have not yet attained in America.  It tells of servants sent to eat in the kitchen but also that in the future that will change and no one will again be sent to eat separately.  Collier’s illustrations depict the real work of the Pullman porters and the rhythm of the train seems to appear in Hughes’ poem too.  These men who worked in a racist world long after slavery was abolished are a fitting match to this strong poem that sings.

Hughes was able to write with such spare poetry, that it gives a strong vehicle for illustrations.  Collier built an incredible story around those lines, one of porters and a small boy who has new chances in the modern world.  He wraps his illustrations in the flag, playing with stars and stripes and the blue of the open sky throughout the book.  There is a gravity, a seriousness to his work that is truly fine.  It lifts up to the level of the poem, creating a harmony that is very special.

This is an extraordinary picture book about freedom, African Americans, and the struggle that still goes on every day for equality.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.