Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I think children's picture book biography is one of the strongest genres within children's literature, consistently executed with excellence and easy to share across the grade levels. May I recommend regular "biography breaks" within the classroom community or home? Just think: if a child is read aloud just one biography a week, how many marvelous mentors and personalities would they be introduced to in a year! Here are a few of this season's stars to start you out:

WANDA GAG: THE GIRL WHO LIVED TO DRAW by Deobrah Kogan Ray (Viking) Thought of as the mother of the modern picture book thanks to her scrappy 1929 tour-de-force MILLIONS OF CATS, Wanda Gag did not always have it easy, but she always had the drive to succeed. Using primary sources (as she did in TO GO SINGING THROUGH THE WORLD: THE CHILDHOOD OF PABLO NERUDA), the author captures the struggles of young Gag as she followed in the footsteps of her hardworking father. His imaginative dreams were thwarted by his need to support his family, but on his deathbed he fortells, "What Papa couldn't do, Wanda will have to finish." Most teenagers would have would have folded under the weight of caring for six young siblings and a sick mother, but the resourceful Gag not only gets her family through the hard times (two sisters became teachers!), but was published and earned a scholarship to study art in New York, where her creative genius began to truly blossom. This is a story that will truly inspire any creative spirit who encounters it, with lovely cozy-brown soft illustrations reminsicent of Don Freeman; you will have to resist pulling pictures out to frame (or maybe you don't have to resist). The story is penned with a personal touch that allows the reader to warm their own skin against the heat of Gag's passion for art ("I can't help it that I've got to draw and paint forever; I cannot stop; I cannot; cannot, CANNOT...I have a right to go on drawing...") and to genuinely revel in Gag's accomplishments, especially in the face of such hardships. By the last page, any reader would want to be friends with sweet Bohemian Wanda, and bring a basket of ginger cookies to her as she draws in "a sagging farmhouse she called 'Tumble Timbers.'" It's exciting to read about somebody who put dreams first, even when it wasn't easy to do. (7 and up)

A RIVER OF WORDS by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans) What a beautiful tribute to the poet who brought us a red wheelbarrow upon which so much depends and the apologetic eating of plums, a man who worked hard all day as a busy doctor, and then fled to a world wallpapered in his own imaginings when the moon rose. The story captures not only the romance and beauty of being a poet, but the bravery and hard work as well; it's hard not to fall just a little bit in love wit ol' William. Illustrator Melissa Sweet has a lot of titles out these days (TUPELO RIDES THE RAILS, CARMINE: A LITTLE MORE RED and BABY BEAR'S BOOKS to name a few), all consistently darling, but I this one in particular has a texture that goes beyond Sweet's sweetness, that I hope will warrant a closer gander by awards committees for the subtle and ecelectic genius she brings to books; she is one of those very gifted illustrators whose pictures truly bring something more to the text. Here, she weaves the words of the poet in and out of her artwork like a fine and golden thread. Thorough and affecting, this book also includes a timeline, notes from the author and the illustrator, and poems on the endpapers. (7 and up)

BUFFALO MUSIC by Tracey E. Fern, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Clarion)

"The heat that summer fell heavy as an angry fist. the trails were deeps with dust. The grass cracked like glass underfoot. And everywhere, far as the eye could see, the bleached bones of the buffalo glistened white in the sun."

During the terrible pioneer massacres of the buffalo, Mary Ann Goodnight had the foresight to cultivate the first captive buffalo herd, helping to save the species. Succinct, captivating writing with both strong description and dialogue hits hard but without any unncessary prosaic fuss, making anyone who reads it aloud seem like a seasoned storyteller, and a thoughtful bibliography with young readers in mind will keep kids following the buffalo trail. Homey illustrations accent the tender heart and common sense of a woman who made a big difference. (6 and up)

SHE TOUCHED THE WORLD: LAURA BRIDGMAN, DEAF-BLIND PIONEER by Sally Hobart Alexander and Robert Alexander (Clarion) Before Helen Keller there was Laura Bridgman, the first blind-deaf child to receive a significant education in the English language. Anne Sullivan learned the manual alphabet from her, and the knowledge of Laura Bridgman's accomplishments are what inspired the mother of Helen Keller to seek help for her daughter. Many detailed biographies bury themselves in their own research, but this rich story is truly readable for its intended audience. Little Laura's movement into the land of communication is one of a benevolent spiritual awakening to her, as well as one of secular interest to all. The pages brim with interesting photos that really contribute to an understanding of the experience and the period in history, including a stirring photo of Laura's bust, eyes covered, sculpted by Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife, Sophia Peabody. The co-author is blind and has experienced some hearing loss herself, and contributes a very thoughtful afterword, "If Laura Were Alive Today." (8 and up)

SANDY'S CIRCUS: A STORY ABOUT ALEXANDER CALDER by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Viking) With a few masterful twists of wire, an artist entrances the Parisian audiences with his playful scrap circus, and a world of joy and play. An angel-like muse seems to follow Calder from page to page. I found myself wishing there were more photos of Calder's actual work included (see Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker's BOTTLE HOUSES: THE CREATIVE WORLD OF GRANDMA PRISBEY), as I was not sure that a child would be able to recognize Calder or his work based on this book alone (a concern that was confrimed when a child noted that the man in te photo has a moustache and the man in the drawings does not), but supplemented with additional images, this book makes for a very exuberant introduction to the inventor of the first mobiles. Play on, playa! (6 and up)

PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS by Anne Broyles, illustrated by Anna Alter (Charlesbridge) One of the great joys of reading is learning something you really didn't know before, and I really didn't know that some members of the Cherokee tribe who were trying to assimilate with European settlers owned African-American slaves (though not without controversy within the tribe). This is the true story of one young African-American girl who, as a result of being enslaved in a Cherokee family, accompanied them on the Trail of Tears, a five hundred mile genocidal treck in freezing weather. She was rescued by a man who saw her by chance, tracked her down and bought her freedom, raising her as one of the family. The growing and blooming of flowers through the story is a moving and hopeful allegory, and the stark differentiation of a life under another's thumb compared to a life of freedom and inclusion is effectively drawn. A powerful, interesting book that retells a painful chapter in American history through the eyes of a brave child. (7 and up)

PORTRAITS OF JEWISH-AMERICAN HEROES by Malka Drucker, illustrated by Elizabeth Rosen (Dutton) From the well-known such as Harry Houdini, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein and Gloria Steinem, to the lesser known and the modern (Henrietta Szold, Hadassah founder; Abraham Heschel, civil rights advocate; Judith Resnik, astronaut; and a very moving closure of the book with a tribute to Daniel Pearl, the journalist, and a poem by an Arab Muslim), Twenty-one thoughtfully selected personalities are presented and given a colorful portraiture in word and in picture. A fine addition to multicultural collections, a great gift book for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, high holidays and a must-have for Jewish American Heritage Month in May (what, do you want to wait until the last minute?) (9 and up)

WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE? by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic)

"I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both." -- Theodore Roosevelt

Plans were being made to send the irrepressible Miss Alice Roosevelt to Miss Spence's boarding school to become a proper young lady. "Alice was appalled. The idea completely shriveled her." But with a little consistent effort, Alice manages to get herself homeschooled. Let loose in the library, the dear little autodidact "taught herself astronoy, geology, even Greek grammar. She read Twain, Dickens, Darwin, and the Bible, cover to cover." But what better home to school in than the White House? As her father's career rose to the highest power, Alice (and her pet snake Emily Spinach) make the move to D.C. Her high spirits and propensity not to listen to her father made headlines, and a difference in what women started to think they could do...and what fun they could have doing it. The goodwill ambassador and serious party girl gets celebrated here in a way that will have little girls snorting at the poor little Paris Hilton. Some of the most charming pictures seen since McKinley's time happen here, and fans of Shana Corey and Chesley McLaren's YOU FORGOT YOUR SKIRT, AMELIA BLOOMER will appreciate the retro feel of the characters laid out with crisp, dynamic line and composition. Favorites pics include Alice having a tantrum with her head beneath a pillow, or zipping from shelf-to-shelf beneath a stuffy stuffed moose-head in the library; honestly, it makes me want to write something just so Edwin Fotheringham can draw it. What to do about Alice? Read about her days spent making the point: well-behaved women rarely make history. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
The Cybil Awards are just getting started, which are the premier web-based award for children's and young adult literature! A very fun part of this award is that you, dear reader, can nominate titles for serious consideration! Check out what others have recommended, and you'll find a pretty amazing list of some of the best books of the year. Happy reading!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.


McDonnellDoodles said...

Once again, an excellent and informative bunch of reviews that make me want to run out and get my hands the talked about books!

Becky said...

Great list of books. I just recently came across a great book that is a true story about a disabled dog. "Frankie, the Walk 'N Roll Dog," by Barbara Techel is great for teaching kids about compassion for animals/people who have disabilities.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for including my book, PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS to this excellent list. I am honored to be among this company, and have just ordered several of the other titles from my local library. I'm glad to have discovered your blog, Esme!


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