3 New Picture Books Bringing History to Life

All That Trash The Story of the 1987 Garbage Barge and Our Problem with Stuff by Meghan McCarthy

All That Trash: The Story of the 1987 Garbage Barge and Our Problem with Stuff by Meghan McCarthy (9781481477529)

In 1987, when a New York landfill was almost out of room, Lowell Harrelson decided to take the trash and move it far away using a barge. His plan was to use the garbage to create methane gas that would be turned into electricity in North Carolina. But the garbage barge never made it to North Carolina, when the state got a court order to stop the barge. The barge was also not welcome in Alabama or Louisiana. It eventually made its way into the Gulf of Mexico and tried to enter Mexico, but that country refused it entry as well. Eventually, the barge returned to waters near New York, prepared to return the garbage to where it had come from. But even that was not simple. Finally, after five months at sea and traveling over 6,000 miles, the garbage was incinerated on order by a judge.

McCarthy nicely plays up two aspects of the story of the garbage barge, the ludicrous nature of the barge being stuck at sea for months and the environmental impact of the trash that humans create. She uses a light tone and light touch in her writing, making it accessible for children who will not have heard of the barge before. She also offers more details at the end of the book, explaining how the crew survived on the barge for so long and offering facts about the barge. She also has recycling facts, garbage facts, and information on ocean garbage in particular. A bibliography is also attached.

Part of the light tone of the book are the illustrations which feature McCarthy’s signature bug-eyed characters. She incorporates speech bubbles and larger images to effectively break up the text into readable chunks.

A funny and amazing true story of the garbage barge that captured the attention of everyone in 1987. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.)

Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Thermes

Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Thermes (9781419728396)

At the age of 67, Emma Gatewood became the first woman to hike all 2160 miles of the Appalachian Trail alone. She was also the first person to complete the trail three times. In this picture book, readers follow her along on her historic trek. With accompanying maps, the journey is filled with nature, rocks and streams. There are encounters with bears, plenty of rain, and many pairs of ruined shoes.

The book takes a warm look at her accomplishments, showing exactly why she was drawn to walk the trail, the beauty she found there and the peace she discovered along the way. The illustrations are playful and bright, focusing on the landscape and the journey often with Gatewood a small figure amongst nature and other times showing her right at the center. A wonderful book about an inspiring figure who journeyed through life in her own unique way. Appropriate for ages 5-9. (Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.)

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison (9780544704527)

Told from the point of view of a child participating in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963, this picture book uses verse to take children back in history. Starting with Dr. Martin Luther King speaking to their congregation, the book shows why it was necessary for children to march, since adults would lose their jobs. The picture book shows how frightened the children were to march but also how very brave they were to overcome those fears and continue. As children were jailed for their actions, the protests continued. When the rest of America saw children being knocked down by fire hoses, even the President took notice and soon change came and children brought that change!

This is a powerful look at the importance of standing up and protesting when things are wrong in our society. While it is about an event in the Civil Rights struggle, it resonates with today’s marches for Black Lives Matter and other causes such as immigration rights. The importance of the Children’s Crusade is explored in the afterword as well. The verse of the book has a quiet but firm tone, telling the tale and letting the courage of the children stand. The illustrations focus both on the crowd of children but also on the faces of individuals and their willingness to stand strong and march together.

An important read about a protest that must never be forgotten. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Brazen by Penelope Bagieu

Brazen by Penelope Bagieu

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu (9781626728691)

As young girls and teens, our society surrounds us with the history of men. This incredible graphic novel tears away at that myth, revealing the amazing women of history and today. Each woman is shown from their childhood and upbringing and then as the grand woman that they became and the impact their life had on the world around them. In this graphic novel, there are women of many races and cultures. There are trans women and queer women, women that you know already and others that are a thrill to discover. This book is a wonder.

Bagieu is a well-known French comic writer who started a project online that then turned into this compilation. The book is a delight to read, each chapter focused on one woman and told briefly and yet in a way that honors them and makes readers want to learn even more about them. There are world leaders here, actresses, artists of a variety of types, scientists, journalists and many many more. The art is fresh and just as feisty as the women the book explores.

A book for every public and high school library, this one is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-18. (Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.)

3 Hopeful Picture Books

Next Year by Ruth Vander Zee

Next Year by Ruth Vander Zee and Gary Kelley (9781568462820)

A gripping look at the Dust Bowl from the point of view of a child growing up in the 1930s, this picture book combines strong imagery with a poetic prose. The book takes no time in becoming dramatic, showing a dust cloud coming towards the boy: “Like midnight in the middle of the day, without moon and stars.” When he reaches home after crawling for two miles because he can’t stand in the dust and the wind, he discovers his parents despairing and desperate. While they may have been hopeful at one time, the boy knows that he has to help and learns about alternative ways to farm. As the days pass, the rain returns but it’s too late for his parents’ hope to return. Powerful and fascinating, this picture book look at the Dust Bowl is exceptional. (Reviewed from library copy.)

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Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard (9781772600377)

A little girl asks her grandfather how to say grandfather in Cree. Her grandfather pauses for a long moment and then explains that he lost his words a long time ago. He then explains to his granddaughter about being taken away from home and put into a boarding school. He wasn’t allowed to speak Cree there at all, only English. The next day, the little girl comes out of school with a book, an introduction to Cree for them to learn together. The author of this picture book is half Cree and never got to speak with her own grandfather about his language and his history. The book is filled with beautiful language, capturing the harshness of the boarding schools and the love of close family as contrasts of cold and warm, hard and soft. Grimard’s illustrations also show the contrasts through images, turning black and white for memories rather than the soft colors used in the modern parts of the book. An introduction to the importance of language, families and identity that is appropriate for small children. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Three Balls of Wool by Henriqueta Cristina

Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono (9781592702206)

Published in partnership with Amnesty International, this picture book uses colors of wool to speak to the conformity required under Communist regimes. The book focuses on a family who flees their home country in the hopes of finding a better, kinder place to live. At first their new country is good. The children can go to school and the parents are less worried. But steadily things change and soon there are only three colors of sweaters for the children to wear. The mother of the family though, realizes that she can make a difference and sews the yarn from the different sweaters into new patterns that incorporate all three. Soon the new designs spread and things begin to change for the better. Cristina has written this picture book analogy from her own experiences as a child. There is a straightforward nature to the writing that allows the analogy to really work, giving it a strong foundation. The art is graphic and strong, leaping off of the page and yet also paying homage to Communist buildings and structures. This is a clever and intelligent book worth discussing in classrooms and families. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Review copy provided by Enchanted Lion.)

Marti’s Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy

Marti's Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy

Marti’s Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal (9780892393756, Amazon)

This picture book in both Spanish and English verse tells the story of José Martí. Martí spent his entire life working to end slavery in Cuba after witnessing the brutality first hand. At the time, Spain ruled Cuba and a war of independence started in 1868. Martí wrote against the Spanish government and was jailed and put to hard labor. At 17-years-old he was sent away from Cuba. He continued to fight for Cuba’s independence and settled in New York. He would travel into the Catskill Mountains to see the nature that he missed from Cuba. Martí eventually returned to Cuba and helped fight in the battles against the Spanish, dying on the battlefield before freedom was realized. His words live on: it was his words and songs that helped drive the Cubans to fight for freedom and to continue fighting.

The verse contains excerpts from Martí’s works, allowing readers to read his words directly. The verse from the author and from Martí  work beautifully together, flowing into one river of words that tell the story of Cuban freedom. The afterword and author’s notes add information to the verse, giving more dates and information on the war for freedom in Cuba and on Martí’s life. This picture book biography takes a complex subject and makes it accessible for young readers, demonstrating how a young-person’s passion can ignite a nation.

The illustrations move from Cuba to New York to the Catskills, capturing scenes of daily life, lush greenery, and battles. There is a sense of energy to all of the illustrations, that matches that of the verse as it speaks to the drive that Martí had to speak out for Cuba’s independence.

A great picture book biography that adroitly pairs English and Spanish on the page. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli

The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli

The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon by Greg Pizzoli (9780670016532, Amazon)

The author of Tricky Vic returns with another rip-roaring nonfiction picture book. It is the true story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who searched for an ancient city hidden in the Amazon rainforest. Fawcett had dreamed his entire life of being an explorer and as an adult took many treks into South America to map the region. They faced many dangers, such as huge snakes and natives with weapons. Many of the men he traveled with perished on the adventures but Fawcett survived. Others thought that the Amazon city was a myth while Fawcett insisted that it existed. If he found it, it would make him one of the most famous explorers of all time and one of the wealthiest too. This book tells his tale as he searched for the lost city.

Pizzoli has a knack for selecting real life stories that most people, adults and children, will not have heard of. This one is a fascinating story of belief and bravery, about a man who left family and country behind in his quest to discover the unknown. Pizzoli tells the story with lots of action and a sense of adventure in his prose. There are moments where Pizzoli allows the action to slow, the wonder of the moment to grow, and the dangers to almost overwhelm. It’s written with skill and knowledge, building to a conclusion that suits the life of Fawcett to a Z.

The book design and illustrations add so much to this nonfiction read. Done in a simple and clever style, just like Pizzoli’s picture books, the images add necessary humor to the book. The design of the book also allows additional information to be added on sidebars. Pizzoli uses his illustrations to also create moments of tension and drama, pausing the action for effect.

Smart, stylish and successful, this nonfiction picture book will take readers on quite an adventure. Appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Balderdash by Michelle Markel

Balderdash by Michelle Markel

Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (9780811879224, Amazon)

This picture book biography is the story of John Newbery, the man who first created books for children in the 18th century. Books were popular in London at the time, but all of the fun books were for adults. Children had to read poems and fables that were dull and taught them about social niceties. John Newbery grew up to be a publisher and realized that children needed different books. He created a book that was filled with fantasy and games and then he made it very attractive and paired it with a toy. Next came a magazine for children and eventually a novel. The books were written anonymously but all were sold and printed by Newbery himself, the man who created children’s literature.

Markel has captured the feel of the creativity and wildness of someone who decided to make a major change in the world. The text here is celebratory of the new discoveries and new chances being taken in books. Markel points out all of the positives about Newbery’s book and avoids noting that his books don’t bear any resemblance to children’s books of today. Rather, the focus is on the invention, the cleverness of the marketing and the popularity of children’s books from the very beginning.

Carpenter’s illustrations are filled with pizzazz. They have a great energy about them, depicting the bustling streets of London, the desirability of the books, and even showing sad children with real humor. She uses slightly turned pages to show other images underneath along with speech bubbles. The text of the book is also playful, moving through different fonts and text sizes for emphasis.

A glimpse of the earliest children’s books, this historical picture book biography is a pleasure just as Newbery’s were. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.

Bravo! by Margarita Engle

Bravo by Margarita Engle

Bravo!: Poems about Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (9780805098761, Amazon)

Latino heroes and heroines are depicted in poetry in this nonfiction picture book. From countries around the world and a variety of backgrounds, these people are inspirational and influential. The poems celebrate their accomplishments with clarity and focus, offering a glimpse into their lives. Engle’s poetry is readable and interesting, inviting you to turn the page to discover yet another amazing person. Some of them readers will be familiar with and others will be new. Readers can find more information on each of the people at the end of the book.

Lopez’s illustrations are done in “a combination of acrylic on wood, pen and ink, watercolor, construction paper, and Adobe Photoshop.” The results are rich illustrations with a clever feel of being vintage in their textures. Each illustration speaks to the person themselves, clearly tying them to their passion and cause.

An important book for public libraries, this is a celebration of Latino impact on the world as a whole. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Co.

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith

Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares (9780763677329, Amazon)

This picture book biography tells the story of Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to fly on her own. In the 18th century, France was filled with “balloonmania.” Every balloonist was male and they were breaking records. Meanwhile, a girl was growing up by the seaside and dreaming of flight. When she met the famous balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the two realized they had a shared passion for flight. They were soon married and started flying together. After two shared flights, Sophie went up alone and became the first woman to fly a balloon solo. Her husband died from a heart attack and fall from a balloon and Sophie stopped flying for awhile. Eventually, she flew again and earned a living with her flight. Napoleon made her Aeronaut of the Official Festivals and Chief Air Minister of Ballooning.

Smith offers exactly the right amount of detail in this picture book. The dangers of ballooning are mentioned but not dwelled upon, just like the death of Jean-Pierre. Sophie’s own death in a balloon is only mentioned in the Author’s Note which also speaks to how little is actually known about her despite her accomplishments. Her childhood, in particular, is unknown and Smith created some of the details himself. Throughout the book, it is the wonder of human flight that is the focus and that unites Sophie’s adult life with her childhood dreams.

Tavares has illustrated this picture book with period details that capture the balloons and the fragility of the baskets. In other illustrations, he captures the sky and the expanse that Sophie is flying into. Two illustrations mirror one another with darker skies as Sophie dreams as a girl of flying and when she returns to flight after her husband’s death.

An important picture book about a brave and groundbreaking woman who refused to be limited by the rest of the world. Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Secret Project by Jonah Winter

The Secret Project by Jonah Winter

The Secret Project by Jonah Winter (9781481469135, Amazon)

What an incredible risk to take, creating a picture book about the creation of the atomic bomb. A mother-son team not only take that risk but create a book that is heart pounding, historical and riveting. In a shut-down school in the desert of New Mexico, a very secret project begins. The world’s greatest scientists gather to work on the “Gadget.” They work day and night working to cut an atom in half. After two years of work, the device is ready to be tested. The book ends with a countdown to the test and the resulting mushroom cloud.

Told in the simplest of language, this picture book looks at the process of building the atomic bomb, the secrecy of the project and the skill and time that it took. There is a constant growing foreboding as the project continues, as the science progresses. This book is not about the importance of the weapon and does not glorify it in any way. Instead it brings the science down to nuts and bolts, looks at the damage that it creates, and ends in a way that makes sure to leave readers with their heart in their throats.

The illustrations have a strong sense of formality and control to them. Each is framed in a square box and the rest of the page is white. They are almost tiles that decorate the wall for the reader. That all changes as the test begins and suddenly the strict rules are broken wide open, adding to the drama of the end.

Stunning, powerful and brave, this picture book belongs in all library collections. Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.