Picture Book Biography

Picture Book Biography

Ticktock, Wooden Clock

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Ticktock Banneker’s Clock
By Shana Keller
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

An anomaly in his own time, Benjamin Banneker lived a remarkable life by any standards. Born to free African-American farmers in eighteenth-century Maryland, he learned to read when most black children were prevented from accessing education. Banneker not only became literate, but he went on to make contributions in math, astronomy, and engineering.

In Ticktock Banneker’s Clock, Shana Keller and illustrator David C. Gardner explore one of Banneker’s most impressive feats. Using a neighbor’s pocket watch as a model, young Benjamin built a wooden clock. The project took nearly two years – he drew diagrams; cut, cured, and carved wooden gears; and assembled the pieces a few times before he achieved a working timepiece. Keller’s narrative highlights Banneker’s focus and attention to detail, while providing readers with a glimpse of the rest of his life – his love for music and his hard work on the farm. Gardner’s illustrations paint a warm, idyllic portrait of Banneker and his world: young Benjamin toils on the farm, plays his flute under a tree, and draws diagrams at his desk. In almost every spread, his trusty hound accompanies him, and the seasons rise and fall around him as his project unfolds.

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock is an introduction to Benjamin Banneker and one of his many accomplishments. It is also a book about the rewards of patience and persistence and the joys of curiosity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Gospel’s Royalty

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Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens
By Nina Nolan
Illustrated by John Holyfield
(Amistad, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Known as the Queen of Gospel, Malhalia Jackson brought majesty and deep joy to the religious music she performed. But her road to renown was as arduous and her hard-won triumph as moving as her voice.

In Mahalia Jackson, Nina Nolan and illustrator John Holyfield tell the artist’s story. Although Nolan acknowledges the hardships Jackson faced – poverty, her mother’s early death, a truncated education – the picture-book biography emphasizes the joy young Mahalia found in singing. Nolan’s narrative manages to be as conversational and lyrical, understated and warm as Jackson herself: “But singing in church raised her spirits. She felt like a peacock with her feathers all spread out.” John Holyfield’s paintings convey the transcendence Jackson – and her listeners – found in her singing. One striking spread shows several members of a church experiencing Jackson’s voice. Eyes closed, the congregants clap their hands, clasp their hands, laugh, and sway as the music transports them. Shadows of other jubilant congregants dot the purple backdrop. For a few minutes, they can escape their sorrows.

Mahalia Jackson is a stirring tribute to the Queen of Gospel. Like many children’s biographies, it is a story of persistence in the face of adversity; it is also a paean to music’s ability to transform lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Drawing from Life

 

DRAW WHAT YOU SEE
Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
By Kathleen Benson
Illustrated with Paintings by Benny Andrews
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $16.99)

Born to sharecropper parents in 1930s Georgia, Benny Andrews knew grinding poverty, racism, and hard work. But he always drew his world: the fields where his parents toiled, the hot sun that beat on their backs, and the hats ladies wore in church. Later, the G.I. Bill helped Andrews attend art school, and he launched a successful career. However, he never forgot his roots. He used both his paintings and his position to advocate for civil rights and improve the lives of African Americans.

In Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, Kathleen Benson describes Andrews’ remarkable career. The narrative opens with an elderly Andrews visiting New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Andrews came to teach art to displaced children. “He knew that sometimes it was easier to tell a story with pictures than with words,” Benson writes. Fortunately for readers, Andrews’ paintings accompany Benson’s lucid prose and help tell his story. They depict farms, churches, and art galleries Andrews knew as well as the prisons where he taught art. Mostly oil and collage, they are colorful, sometimes poignant, yet always uplifting portraits of African-American life.

Draw What You See is an accomplished introduction to one artist and a reflection on art’s purposes. It also allows children – and adults – to enjoy Andrews’ work outside of the museum.
-Dorothy A. Dahm

Renaissance Man

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Leonardo Da Vinci
Written and illustrated by Mike Venezia
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $29)

Artist, architect, scientist, and inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius by any standards. In Leonardo Da Vinci, author-illustrator Mike Venezia shares Da Vinci’s life, career, and art with early readers. Interspersed with Venezia’s straightforward narrative are his humorous, cartoonish illustrations about the artist’s life. In addition, photographs of Da Vinci’s paintings and sketches appear throughout the book. This allows readers to see the artist’s technique and appreciate his work. Finally, a map of Da Vinci’s Italy and a quiz about his life add to the biography’s appeal. Like the other titles in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series, Leonardo Da Vinci introduces beginning readers to one artist’s oeuvre. It also gives kids who might not be exposed to museums or art books a chance to view great art. Mike Venezia is taking art out of the gallery and bringing it into children’s lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

By Her Own Light

9781585369553_fc-1Miss Colfax’s Light
By Aimée Bissonette
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

For forty-three years, from 1861 to 1904, Harriet Colfax kept the Michigan City Lighthouse. She worked round the clock, fueling and refueling the light, dragging fuel up and down the lighthouse stairs, and maintaining a log of the weather and her activities. Although the work was hard, Colfax reveled in her independence – and took pride in her labor.

In Miss Colfax’s Light, Aimée Bissonette and illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen celebrate Harriet Colfax’s life. In frugal, vivid prose, Bissonette conveys both nineteenth century constraints on women’s choices and Colfax’s determination to succeed in a man’s world. Excerpts from Colfax’s log appear in several spreads, further illuminating the harsh weather and constant toil that formed her days. Ewen’s illustrations evoke both the coziness of the lighthouse and the exhausting nature of the work. Readers see for themselves just how backbreaking the work was and why Colfax embraced this existence. An author’s note provides additional information about Colfax and includes a glossary of lighthouse terms.

Miss Colfax’s Light is a winning picture-book biography of an unconventional Victorian woman. It is also a look at a vanished way of life and a testament to the satisfaction of a job well done.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Trade Secrets

inventors-secret-hiresThe Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford
By Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and the phonograph; Henry Ford produced the Model T Ford, the first affordable, high-quality automobile. Together, they helped fashion modern life. However, when they first met at an 1896 dinner party, Edison was sixteen years old and far more celebrated than the younger inventor. Still, he gave Ford some much-needed encouragement – and some valuable advice. That was all the incentive Ford needed to continue experimenting with engines. Eventually, he made his Model T, and the two men developed a lifelong friendship.

In The Inventor’s Secret, Suzanne Slade and illustrator Jennifer Black Reinhardt tell the innovators’ intertwining stories. First, readers encounter both men as small boys whose curiosity leads them to perform risky experiments. As the narrative progresses and Edison’s fame grows, Ford admires him from afar and longs to equal his success. Slade describes her subjects’ creations in clear, simple prose and skillfully develops the relationship between the inventors. Cheerful and occasionally cartoonish, Reinhardt’s illustrations complement the narrative and convey the excitement inherent in discovery. At the end of the book, a timeline and various notes offer more information about the subjects and their creations.

What detracts from an otherwise delightful text is a description of an experiment young Edison performed with his family’s cats. By gleefully mentioning his efforts to understand static electricity, Slade could inadvertently persuade kids to try this at home – and hurt animals in the process. Including this information in a book for children is simply irresponsible.

The very acts of investigation and invention suggest optimism about the world and the future. In The Inventor’s Secret, Slade and Reinhardt introduce children to two important figures in American history and focus excitement about the possibility of discovery. The picture-book biography also holds a familiar, albeit important, lesson about the value of persistence.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Cozy with Cassatt

GTK_Cassett_cvr2.inddMary Cassatt
Written and illustrated by Mike Venezia
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $29)

There are many ways to introduce children to art and art history: education, museum excursions, and stories. In Mary Cassatt, author-illustrator Mike Venezia fuses these approaches to introduce early readers to the Impressionist painter. He interposes his straightforward biography with cartoons about Cassatt’s life; these act as humorous and humanizing asides within the narrative. Finally, Venezia includes photos of Cassatt’s work with those of her contemporaries, including her friend Edgar Degas. Thus, the book allows children – including those who might not have an opportunity to visit an art museum – to see and enjoy her paintings.

Although Venezia uses simple language, his approach to Cassatt, her art, and her milieu is far from simplistic. He describes the obstacles Cassatt faced as a woman pursuing an artistic career in the late nineteenth century; he also addresses the mixed critical reception the early Impressionists received. In addition, Venezia discusses the techniques Cassatt employed, from brushstrokes to her experiments with pastels. The result is a surprisingly rich, multifaceted look at an independent woman and her art that works equally well in the classroom, library, and living room.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Grappling with Nature

john-muir-wrestles-a-waterfall-hiresJohn Muir Wrestles a Waterfall
By Julie Danneberg
Illustrated by Jamie Hogan
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

John Muir, writer, explorer, conservation advocate, and founder of the Sierra Club, delighted in nature. Marveling at both the delicacy of a snowflake and the power of an earthquake, he spent years living in California’s Yosemite Valley. There, he lived in a sawmill he built himself; through the window, he could see the awe-inspiring Yosemite Falls. One night, in April 1871, Muir decided to get very close to the falls: an experience that simultaneously uplifted him and nearly cost him his life.

In John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, Julie Danneberg and illustrator Jamie Hogan recount this chapter in Muir’s life. Danneberg’s lyrical, present-tense narrative transports readers to the rocky outcropping behind the falls. Hogan’s pastel illustrations bring Muir’s Yosemite to life. The book’s most striking spreads depict Muir behind the waterfall; these pictures capture both the falls’ mesmerizing quality and Muir’s wonder, allowing readers to share his excitement. What detracts from an otherwise compelling package are short, informative paragraphs that appear on some of the earlier spreads. Although they provide useful context, they would have been more effective in the book’s afterword.

In an essay about the adventure, Muir wrote that he was “better, not worse, for my wild bath in moonlit spray.” John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall encourages children to view nature as something wonderful to experience and protect – even if that force also poses danger.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Trees for Peace

Wangari_300ppiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
By Franck Prévot
Illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Translated from the French by Dominique Clément
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $17.95)

Wangari Maathai lived a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. Born in 1940 to a poor family in rural Kenya, she was the first East African woman to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Along the way, she worked both to protect Kenya’s land and people from exploitation; in her mind, environmental protection and human rights were closely aligned. Her environmental activism often took a simple and concrete form: planting trees in deforested areas and encouraging others, especially poor women, to do the same.

In Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Franck Prévot and Aurélia Fronty introduce young readers to the pioneering activist. Translator Dominique Clément ensures the picture-book biography retains the understated lyricism of the original French narrative: “In shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression Wangari never forgets.” Fronty’s colorful illustrations reflect the interconnectedness Maathai saw between all life. In one striking spread, a leopard poses gracefully in a tree with a slim, twisting trunk. The tendrils of other trees and even smaller plants intertwine with the trunk; a bird perches on one limb. Nearby, a young Wangari, whose name means “She who belongs to the leopard,” peeps from behind two large leaves. Other illustrations flirt with a symbolic surrealism. One spread shows the shoots of various plants, in vivid red, blue, and green, springing from Maathai’s fingertips. The plants’ veins extend down into her hand and arm; a red heart branches off from a vein in her hand, suggesting the love and interdependence that unite all life. A timeline of Maathai’s life and information about Kenya’s current political and environmental situation follow the narrative.

Both teaching tool and a work of art,  is a passionate look at the difference one person can make. It should inspire children and adults to improve their corner of the world – even if they only plant a tree.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Bridge to Fairness

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Ruby Bridges

By Simone T. Ribke
(Scholastic, Inc., 2015, New York, Library Binding $23, Paperback $5.95)

Parents of all backgrounds often struggle to explain racism and segregation to their children. Simone T. Ribke’s Ruby Bridges allows parents and educators to introduce these sensitive subjects to beginning readers. Part of Scholastic’s Rookie Biographies series, the book helps children develop reading schools even as they learn about an important figure in the Civil Rights movement.

In very simple prose, Ribke tells the story of Ruby Bridges, who, at six, became the first African-American student to attend an otherwise white elementary school in Louisiana. To put Ruby’s experiences in context, Ribke also provides basic facts about segregation. Photos, a timeline, glossary, poem, and Fast Facts also help bring Ruby’s world to life.

Ruby Bridges became a Civil Rights pioneer when she was six – the approximate age of the students who will read this book. As such, she makes a compelling and admirable subject – and an excellent way for children to start learning about the Civil Rights movement.

-Dorothy A. Dahm