Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that I'm ga-ga about children's picture book biographies, and why not? They are so very versatile; you can share them with children in first grade or eighth grade, all with easy success. I am a strong proponent of "the biography break," or a short interruption in routine to open up to the inspiration of the lives of others. Just imagine if you read aloud just one picture book biography to a child every week. By the end of the year, how many new heroes would that child have? How many new mentors? How many figures from history and around the world would that child know? How many great artists? There's only one way to find out!

Wah-la! Here is a selection of stellar picture book biographies from this past publication year (and a couple 2009'ers, too). The strong suit of these true stories is that message that success doesn't come easily to anybody, underscoring the inherent virtue of the adage, "try, try again." And in hopes of getting this new year off on the right foot, in honor of this hot and helpful genre, I have also created an archival blog of biographical book recommendations with enough suggestions to get teachers through biography breaks for the rest of the school year (thanks to my buds at the fabulous Chicago chapter of the New Teacher Center for the inspiration). Check it out!

THE ROAD TO OZ: TWISTS, TURNS, BUMPS AND TRIUMPHS IN THE LIFE OF L.FRANK BAUM by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Knopf)
Amicably spoiled and hardly risk averse, Frank comes to creative fruition after a few false starts. The Art of Window Decorating just wasn't the best-seller he anticipated, actors with penchants for expensive costumes ripped him off, and his investments in competitive poultry shows also didn't pan out. These tribulations are related with the tone of good humored shrugging that we can only imagine Baum would have appreciated, and robust illustrations help to capture the spirit of this difficult and delightful storyteller, newspaper man and theater enthusiast who penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (7 and up)

Megan McCarthy: a name you can trust. With unfettered text, she consistently adds books to the shelves that are appropriate for the intended audience, and matte-acrylic illustrations that manage to help tell the story while tickling the funny bone. This sister consistently knows how to write a book that cuts all the fat, which is especially perfect for the subject at hand. After the infamous kicking-of-sand-in-the-face at the beach and an inspirational moment with a statue of Hercules at a local museum, Charles has a transformational epiphany that turns him into a muscle man. Developing a technique developed by watching the rippling muscles of lions at the zoo, he manages to pump of the men of America up through "Dynamic Tension" and win the "World's Most Beautiful Man" contest. The page of poses for the many statues for which Atlas modeled was a revelation (did you know when you're looking at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, you're looking at handsome Charlie?) Considered perfectly developed, this handsome Italian-American was able to pull a 145,000 pound train with his bare hands, he was a picture not only of physical health, but a lifetime of enthusiasm and inspiration. Meet the man behind the comic book ads in this larger-than-life immigrant story. Also included are four fun exercises to start the heart pumping, and an author's note which includes the fabulous picture of our husky hero flexing in what looks like underpants, which, if you ask any grade-school boy, should be worth the price of the book alone....maybe a few bored librarians will also agree. (6 and up)

MANJIRO: THE BOY WHO RISKED HIS LIFE FOR TWO COUNTRIES by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar, Straus Giroux)

Even though he was barely fourteen years old, Manjiro persuaded a fisherman to hire him. There were five men on the little boat when it set off for fishing grounds a few miles from shore...But then ominous black clouds appeared, followed by ferocious winds, and suddenly the boat began to founder in the stormy sea. The fishermen tried to head for shore, but an oarlock broke off and the oar itself was washed overboard. The boat was borne southeast, at the mercy of freezing winds.

The men were afraid they would never find their way back home and that if they did, they would face the executioner. For over two and a half centuries, Japan had been closed to the outside world. Anyone who tried to return after leaving the country could be put to death. But Manjiro told himself over and over again that somehow he would return to his mother.

So begins the truly remarkable adventure of a young man loosed from the environment of the Tokugawa government, and a xenophobia paralleled only perhaps by the likes of Brigadoon. Manjiro is picked up by an American ship and transported to colonial Massachusetts, with their own special brand of xenophobia. With the support of mentor and seaman William Whitfield, Manjiro becomes highly educated and respected in his community, but never forgets his oath or his original home. He has much to share upon his return...if the authorities let him in. This is a survival story of an individual that hinges on the willingness to learn and adapt and make friends, and a survival story for the world that hinges on the very same things. Shout it from the crow's nest: a perfect read-aloud! (7 and up)

THE RAUCOUS ROYALS by Carlyn Beccia (Houghton Mifflin)
This book invites readers: "Test your royal wits: crack codes, solve mysteries, and deduce which royal rumors are true." Go ahead, spin the ax. Can you guess which of King Henry's wives met her end with the same implement? Is the rumor that Anne Boleyn was really a witch with six fingers or the legend of Prince Dracula true or false? Which of the following were among Queen Elizabeth's favorite things: dancing, cursing, The Spanish, bear-baiting? What did a typical spa day look like in the seventeenth century? An eclectic, inviting layout plays off of Medieval-inspired paintings of scowling sovereigns. Children will laugh out loud and gasp in shock in turns while they learn enough facts about British history to make them a formidable match on Jeopardy, and the chance to be next in succession to read this book is appealing enough to inspire the like of intrigues of Mary, Queen of Scots against her cousin Elizabeth. Okay, maybe not that appealing; let's hope not. (8 and up)

ONE BEETLE TOO MANY: THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF CHARLES DARWIN by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman (Candlewick)

"I am a complete millionaire in odd and curious facts." -Charles Darwin

Much to his father's chagrin, young Charles was a phenomenal flop in school, dismal in his efforts to become a doctor, and a terrible theologian. His own sister would correct the spelling in his personal letters. The only thing Charles seemed good at was, well, sticking beetles in bottles. But with an unrelenting eye for detail and a heart set on adventure, his absorption in the natural world and in-depth observations led him to a theory that would shock and rock the world. Insights into the balance between his scientific and spiritual life, his permissive parenting style, and his great adventures riding across the plains with gauchos , finding seashells on mountain tops, dipping into South American river beds to find octopus friends and making the most out of earthquakes, well, you can't read all of this and not say, "that was one heck of a life." For all the fascinating details, the artwork is really the scene stealer; the slick, even flow and strangely alluring depth of the illustrations might lead one to believe they were computer generated, but it was really done with graphite pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, acrylics and collage with paper, string, weeds and wildflowers, and the effect is stylistically distinct and nothing short of beautiful. Don't be daunted by the length of the text; this exciting read-alone or read-aloud life story of a man who truly embraced life and nature will leave you wanting more. And if you do, check out CHARLES DARWIN, by Alan Gibbons, illustrated by Lee Brown (Kingfisher), a fictionalized account of the voyage of Darwin's ship, The HMS Beagle, through the log a ship's boy. (8 and up)

ASHLEY BRYAN: WORDS TO MY LIFE'S SONG by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum)

I love painting from the landscape, when weather permits. Later in the day I return to my studio and work on my book projects. At times I turn to work on a puppet or a glass panel. Each activity taps into a different level of energy that allows me to extend my working day. I don't regard visits of family and friends as interruptions. Everything feeds into the day, which feels big here. In response to the flow of events, I hope to validate my time, my life.
-Ashley Bryan

Take a stroll on Cranberry Island with Ashley as he recounts his progression from an art-loving boy in the Bronx to a world-traveled painter to an award-winning author to puppeteer in Maine. Family stories, disappointments, and motivations are all revealed in this fiercely intimate memoir by an author who is a true citizen of the world. Told in the format of a parallel story that takes place both in his home in the present and in the recollections of his past, he writes about his experiences of discrimination in the early part of the last century, but in a matter-of-fact way that will not discourage or alienate his diverse modern audience. The writing is as uncareful and warm as a conversation with a friend, and Bryant shares again as only Bryan can, beckoning with both brush and finger to the artful, heart-full life of a creative soul. There is a goodbye in his tone, but hopefully it will not demarcate an end. Of special interest especially to adult children's book enthusiasts. (11 and up)

HOME ON THE RANGE: JOHN A. LOMAX AND HIS COWBOY SONGS by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Putnam)

One day, John got the courage to show his precious collection of cowboy songs to his teacher. He hoped the professor would find them as fascinating as he did.
But that snooty professor just turned up his nose. "There's nothing of value in these songs of plain, ordinary folk," he sneered.

Success is the best revenge, as this Texan sets out on the cowboy trail with his notebook and clunky recording machine to capture the dusky, doleful soul of the open range. A surprisingly moving portrait of a folklorist and musicologist who captured the home where the buffalo roam for posterity. It's impossible to read this story and not to rediscover the poetry that Lomax saw first. Score one for plain, ordinary folk. (7 and up)

And as you embark this year on the task of living large, I'll leave you with this Kipling-inspired quote from that delicious bad boy Teddy Roosevelt:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again...who spends himself in worthy cause; who, at best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly."

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


Lindsay said...

Wow--those look like great books! I can't wait to read The Road to Oz, thanks for the recommendation. Have you read " The Perfect Wiard: Hans Christian Anderson"? I enjoyed it. Thanks for reminding me about biographies and sharing them, I'll just have to do that!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for mentioning HOME ON THE RANGE. I guess Lomax is a bit of an unlikely subject but am hoping teachers, parents and kids who love cowboy songs will welcome hearing more about how those tunes stay alive! - Deborah Hopkinson

Anonymous said...

Charles Atlas is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd. all rights reserved www.charlesatlas.com

McDonnellDoodles said...

Can't wait to look for these books at our library! I have one more: "Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton," by Catherine Brighton. GREAT book!

Stella said...

Oh what a wonderful list! Thank you for those amazing recommendation! I am waiting in the mail to get my copy of A River of Words: The story of William Carlos Williams, which I also read great reviews on it!


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