Saturday, April 30, 2016

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist by Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter Z)

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist
by Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce 
2011. Carolrhoda Books.

9780761352570


Subject


Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938) was a Sioux writer, activist, and violinist.

Scope


The text of this book features slightly edited versions of monthly first-person articles Zitkala-Sa wrote for the Atlantic Monthly during the early 1900s. 

About the Illustrations


Some of the pictures are better than others. Faces convey much of the story, and the illustrations are kid-friendly, as they fill the page with color. The book is not as much about music as the cover image suggests, and worse, on pages where Zitkala-Sa is shown playing a musical instrument, Capaldi depicts her holding it incorrectly, or leaves entire pieces of the instrument out of the picture. (As the wife of a former music teacher, I have learned that most picture books get these details wrong. Illustrators need to do better.)

Author's Note


The "Author's Note" is placed at the start of this book, where it provides all the necessary context to help readers understand Zitkala-Sa's life story. It includes references to well-known events such as Little Big Horn, as well as to situations readers may not know about, like American Tribal Indians' rights being ignored and children being taken from families to assimilate into the Anglo world. The "Afterword" at the end of the book includes photos of Zitkala-Sa, and talks about her work in the 1920s, and the circumstances of her death. "A Note on the Uses of Sources and Materials" justifies what was already explained in the Author's Note about changing some of Zitkala-Sa's words to suit the format of the book and explains how additional biographical details not explicitly states in the Atlantic Monthly articles was added to provide context. Finally, "Selected Bibliography," "Partial List of Zitkala-Sa's Writings" and "Further Reading" sections provide lots of resources for deeper research.

Additional Comments 

This book is very text-heavy for a picture book. I would say it's definitely geared toward middle grade audiences, and will probably get the most use by classroom teachers who are focusing on American history. 


Friday, April 29, 2016

Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Jamel Akib (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter Y)

Twenty-Two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank
by Paula Yoo
illustrated by Jamel Akib
2014. Lee & Low Books.
9781600606588

Subject


Muhammad Yunus (1940 - ) pioneered microcredit and microfinance, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Scope


The narrative begins without identifying Yunus's significance, which makes it hard for the reader to become invested in his story. It starts with his involvement with the Boy Scouts and his desire to help others even as a child. Then it describes how he was inspired to help break the cycle of poverty by a meeting with a Bangladeshi woman whose livelihood making stools was dependent upon her ability to pay for supplies.

About the Illustrations


The pictures in this book are done in chalk pastel. They are functional, but not very kid-friendly, and they don't really add much to the text. The cover is also unfortunately bland.

Author's Note


There is an "Afterword" which shows how Yunus's economic system was adapted successfully for use in other countries and lists other awards he has won in addition to the Nobel Prize. There is also a photo of Yunus, and an "Author's Sources" section at the back of the book.

Additional Comments


For a publisher that has come out so strongly in favor of diversity, to the point that it shames other, bigger publishers into revealing the (lack of) diversity amongst their own employees, Lee & Low didn't really do a very good job of making sure its agenda made it into this book. There are plenty of opportunities to explain Indian culture and history, but these are glossed over, as though the author assumes the reader would already know those details. Instead of portraying anything interesting about Bangladeshi culture, or presenting Yunus's personality, it mostly just lists places and dates with very little context, making the story far more tedious than necessary.  The system Yunus started is interesting, especially for kids who already have some background knowledge about economics and social justice, but this book didn't excite me about the subject matter.


Review Round-Up: Books for Beginning Readers, April 2016


I am just finishing up a month of reviewing nothing but picture book biographies, so I haven't reviewed much of anything for beginning readers, but many others have picked up my slack. Here are the easy reader and chapter book reviews I collected from around the blogs during April.

Easy Readers


I didn't find too many easy reader reviews this month, but there are some new and old favorites among the ones I did collect.

Step Up Readers reviewed four easy reader books this month: Dance, Dance Underpants, SplashAmelia Bedelia By the Yard and Get a Hit, Mo!

Flying Off My Bookshelf had a review of an older title soon to be reissued with new illustrations, The Last Chocolate Cookie. Its sister blog, Jean Little Library, reviewed What am I? Where am I?

Becky's Book Reviews highlighted two classic picture books in easy reader format, Best Friends for Frances and A Bargain for Frances.

Finally, Provo Library Children's Book Reviews had posts about Freckleface Strawberry: Loose Tooth! and Big Cat.


Chapter Books


There was a lot of variety among chapter book reviews this month.

Jean Little Library and Flying Off My Bookshelf had a total of 6 posts about chapter books:


Ms. Yingling Reads reviewed the third Syvlie Scruggs book, The Spelling Bee Scuffle, as well as the new Hardy Boys chapter book, The Video Game Bandit and the first two books in the Dr. Kitty Cat series.

Kids Book a Day also had three reviews: Weekends with Max and His Dad, Noodlehead Nightmares, and Fluffy Strikes Back. Weekends with Max and His Dad was also featured at Librarian's Quest.

Other chapter book reviews from this month included:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Reading with Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep, April 2016

The Influence of Books


Miss Muffet has always loved books, but lately I am seeing their influence in her daily activities more than ever. For example, earlier this month, she was playing with the sock baby doll I made her for Christmas and we had the following exchange:

Me: Is your baby a boy or a girl?
Miss Muffet: A boy.
Me: What's his name?
Miss Muffet: Maurice Sendak!

The only Sendak book she really knows so far is Alligators All Around, but she also heard my husband and me discussing the illustrations in The Wheel on the School, and apparently his name made quite an impression. And of course, now that she has seen that hearing her call the baby Maurice Sendak amuses me, she does it all the time. She is also quite fond of John Burningham, and attributes every book we read to either him or Bill Martin, Jr.

Another interesting habit she has picked up because of a book is calling me "Pa." This started happening after we read and/or watched the Weston Woods adaptation of Owl Moon every day for a week. I have told her that I prefer to be called "Mama" and that "Pa" would be a better name for her father, but she gets such a kick out of saying, "Hi, Pa!" that I secretly kind of enjoy it. I'm also so, so thrilled that she likes that book. I hesitated about sharing it with her when she is still so young, but she is so fascinated by owls that I'm glad I didn't wait.

Listening to Books and Magazines


Another new introduction to Miss Muffet's life this month has been audiobooks. Now that she has mostly stopped napping, she often needs something to do to make "quiet time" last long enough to be worthwhile, so I decided to give audiobooks a shot. We started with Penny and Her Song, which I downloaded from the library through Overdrive, and then moved on to The Adventures of Johnny Chuck from Librivox. These were okay, but I'm finding that what really works well for her is the audio version of her Highlights High Five magazine. An audio edition of each issue of the magazine is available for download or streaming on the Highlights website, and the recordings all have signals to indicate when page turns occur. I loved "read-along" books like this as a kid, so it's great to see her enjoying the same experience. It also saves me having to read the magazine cover to cover ten times a day, and it has fostered a great love for the magazine's recurring characters, Tex (whom she calls "Tag") and Indi. My husband also raided the audiobook section at the public library this past weekend and checked out a bunch of read-along versions of favorite picture books, so I'm looking forward to seeing her interact with those in the coming weeks.

A Book for Baby

On a recent trip to the used bookstore, Miss Muffet was pulling books off the shelf in typical toddler fashion when she happened upon Jeanne Titherington's Baby's Boat, which is an illustrated version of a lullaby we have been singing to Bo Peep for the past few months. I'm not entirely sure Miss Muffet understood what she had found, but once I told her it was a book version of her sister's favorite song, she was very excited to sing it with her, and we decided to purchase the book.  Though we have many baby-friendly books around the house for Bo Peep to explore, this is the first one we bought for her because of her own interests. We have only read it a few times, but she absolutely loves the baby in the pictures, and Miss Muffet pointed out that the baby even looks a little bit like Bo Peep. I probably would not have chosen this book for either of my children on my own, but I'm so pleased to finally have something in our collection that represents Bo Peep's budding personality.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz, illustrated by A.G. Ford (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter X)

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X 
by Ilyasah Shabazz
illustrated by A.G. Ford 
2014. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
9781442412163

Subject 


Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a human rights activist.

Scope


This book, written by his daughter, relate the childhood of Malcolm Little, the boy who grows up to be Malcolm X. There is a ton of information - much of it unnecessarily detailed - crammed into every page. The book ends with Malcolm being elected class president and does not come close to even mentioning what Malcolm X is known for.

About the Illustrations


The pictures have a very contemporary look, and there isn't much in them to suggest history. Many of the images have strange perspectives, where small items like ladybugs look overly large, and they also have an oddly cheery mood that does not really match the serious-sounding text. There are also glaring errors in the pictures, such as "the evergreen tree" mentioned in the text which appears with green leaves inside the book, and with leaves changing color on the front cover. The illustrations really make the book feel hastily put together and poorly produced.

Author's Note


The author's note is a lengthy personal reflection on Malcolm X's life which is as long-winded and overly romanticized as the text proper.

Additional Comments 


This book reads like a school report written by a child in the target age range. The writing is dry and not very accessible, especially if the reader doesn't yet know anything about Malcolm X. Phrases like "person of color" and "African-American" also sound out of place as they would not have been used in the time period during which the book takes place. Because the book focuses only on Malcolm's childhood, it also doesn't really teach anything significant. Only someone who is already knowledgeable about Malcolm X and interested in knowing more would be truly interested in reading this - and that's not most elementary students.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris (Picture Book Biographies A to Z - Letter W)

Noah Webster & His Words
by Jeri Chase Ferris
illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
2012. Houghton Mifflin
9780547390550


Subject


Noah Webster (1758-1843) was the creator of the first American dictionary.

Scope


This book covers Webster's entire life, beginning with his childhood disagreement with his father over whether he would take over the family farm and following him through his education at Yale, his experiences teaching during the American Revolution, and his writing of multiple books, including, finally, the famous dictionary for which he is known.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations add a light-hearted dimension to the facts presented in this book because they are drawn in a cartoonish style, with exaggerated heads and eyes on all the figures, and simplified details on background objects such as trees and furniture. Webster's personality comes across strongly in his facial expressions, and though he spends much of the book doing quiet, solitary activities, the pictures still feel lively.

Author's Note


There is an author's note on the final page of the book, which gives details not included in the text, such as the names of Webster's children and of some of Webster's contemporaries that kids may know, like Benjamin Franklin. Also included is a bibliography listing primary and secondary sources along with websites, and a timeline, showing all the significant events of Webster's life interspersed with important events in American history.

Additional Comments


A fun component of this book is the way the author includes definitions for words within the narrative. Not only does this drive home Webster's fascination with language; it also teaches kids some new vocabulary in an accessible way. This book also helps to explain why American and English spellings for many words are different and also teaches kids that American English was not standardized prior to Webster's writings. I enjoyed the book, and I think kids who are interested in language will like it as well.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bout of Books Read-A-Thon, May 2016

Bout of Books

It's time for another Bout of Books!

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 9th and runs through Sunday, May 15th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 16 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team
During January's read-a-thon, I managed to read 30 digital ARCs in a week. I read so much that I have only just finished scheduling reviews of some of those titles! During this bout, which runs the week of May 9th, I'm hoping to have similar success. Here are my tentative goals:

  • Read three titles for Fumbling Through Fantasy (which takes me through the end of June)
  • Read one Old School Sunday title (to fill the next available date, June 12th)
  • Read my 1960s and 1970s titles for Newbery Through the Decades. (Total of 2 books)
  • Read ARCs for middle grade books coming out in June and July. (Total of 7 books)
  • Read ARCs of chapter books coming out in June and July. (Total of 7 books)
  • Read all the YA ARCs I currently have. (Total of 4 books)
This is only 24 books, so hopefully I'll get these done and with the time leftover, get started on the rest of the titles I want to blog about this summer. Check back here, and on my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts the week of May 9th to follow my progress.

I, Vivaldi by Janice Shefelman, illustrated by Tom Shefelman (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter V)

I, Vivaldi
by Janice Shefelman
illustrated by Tom Shefelman
2008. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
9780802853189


Subject


Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was an Italian baroque composer and violinist.

Scope


In Vivaldi's own "voice," this book narrates the events of his life, beginning with his birth on the day of an earthquake when his mother promises God that her son will be a priest. This promise creates an inner conflict for Vivaldi as his musical talent is revealed, but the book follows his path to becoming both the Red Priest and a violin teacher for orphan girls.

About the Illustrations


Throughout this book Vivaldi appears warm and approachable, as though he is someone young readers would want to get to know. The illustrations also include lovely depictions of church interiors. There is just one problem, which occurs twice. The same figure is shown two different times in two different illustrations playing a pipe, and the figure's hands are reversed on the instrument. In a book about a musician, these details are especially important, so it's disappointing that an editor did not correct this error.

Author's Note 


There are three notes at the back of the book. "Fact and Fiction" explains how the author wrote the text "using facts to imagine fiction." The "Glossary" defines words specific to the Catholic faith, like cardinal and Mass, as well as Italian words like gondola. Finally, the "Listen and Play" section suggests that readers listen to "The Compleat Four Seasons" and provides the Violin I part for the beginning of "Spring."

Additional Comments 


This book is very well done, and one of my favorites of this month's project. Though the first person narration does make it more of a fiction book, the factual information is all correct, and presenting it as a story helps make it interesting to young readers who might not know anything about Vivaldi.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Uncle Andy's: A Faabbbulous Visit With Andy Warhol by James Warhola (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter U)

Uncle Andy's: A Faabbbulous Visit With Andy Warhol 
by James Warhola
2003. G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers.
9780399238697

Subject


Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was an American artist who was a leading figure in the pop art movement. (I could not find a picture book biography for someone whose first or last name began with U, so for the purposes of this challenge, U is for Uncle Andy Warhol.)

Scope


Told by Warhol's nephew, James Warhola, this book relates a story of August 1962, when young James and his family (parents Paulie and Eva and siblings Mary Lou, Georgie, Maddie, and Marty) visit their Uncle Andy Warhol at his apartment. Their visit occured during the same year that Warhol had his first solo exhibition.

About the Illustrations


The illustration style really reminded me of Richard Egielski's pictures for The Tub People. The images are infused with humor, such as when Uncle Andy is seen by the children without his wig, and with details kids find interesting, such as the 5-story interior view of Uncle Andy's apartment. The pictures really capture the excitement of young James's experience, and the quirkiness of Warhol himself.

Author's Note


The story begins with an author's note, which gives a little bit of background information and sets up the family anecdote to follow. This is an effective way to introduce the book, which is more of a memoir than a strict biography. 

Additional Comments


This book is definitely non-fiction, but I'm not sure I would call it a biography in the traditional sense since it is really more of a family memoir. Still, since much of Andy Warhol's biographical details might not be appropriate for young children, this seems like the ideal way to introduce his offbeat art and personality to the picture book audience - through the eyes of a child who happens to be related to the artist.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Adventures of Mark Twain by Huckleberry Finn by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Barry Blitt (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter T)

The Adventures of Mark Twain by Huckleberry Finn
by Robert Burleigh
illustrated by Barry Blitt 
2011. Atheneum Books for Young Readers
9780689830419



Subject


Mark Twain (1835-1910), born Samuel Clemens, was an American author and humorist.

Scope


In the voice of Huckleberry Finn, this book tells the story of Samuel Clemens from his being "born excited," to when he was eleven years old and his "Pap up and died." It covers his time as a steamboat captain and his failure at "soldierin'" and "hammerin' rock" during the Civil War that led to his job as a newspaper reporter. Finally, it discusses his marriage, the writing of his books, and the sad end to his life.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations use exaggerated heads and faces to match the fanciful tone of the text. For me, having been to the Mark Twain house for a tour, the most striking thing about the illustrations is how perfectly they capture the building and its character. It was just spot on.

Author's Note


The Editor's Note fills in many of the gaps of the text, including the details and dates that the style of the text proper made it necessary to omit. Unlike the Levi Strauss book's author's note, which basically indicates that the reader has just wasted his time reading nonsense, this note helps make the book useful by supplementing the somewhat silly text.

Additional Comments


This book is clever, but not easy to read due to the heavy dialect. Though any reader could gain an understanding of Mark Twain from the book, it is probably best appreciated by kids who have also read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Stacey Innerst (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter S)

Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea
by Tony Johnston
illustrated by Stacey Innerst
2011. HMH Books for Young Readers
9780152061456

Subject


Levi Strauss (1829-1902) was the founder of the first company to manufacture blue jeans.

Scope


This book begins by setting a scene in which gold prospectors need stronger pants. It then describes Levi Strauss "rushing slowly" to the West, missing out on gold, but creating a Great Pants Rush instead.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations are silly and match the tone of the story. They look more like political cartoons than traditional picture book illustrations.

Author's Note


The "Note from the Author" section at the end of the book reveals that everything presented as fact in the text proper is actually based on legend, and that the author has even embellished the details of the legend . The same cutesy and ridiculous tone that permeates the book continues into the author's note so that even this cannot be taken seriously.

Additional Comments 


This is a tall tale, not a biography. I don't know why my local library - or any library - has it shelved in the biography section. This is misleading and definitely problematic for kids looking for biographies for school projects. The reader can't learn a single fact about Levi Strauss from this book.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Eleanor by Barbara Cooney (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter R)

Eleanor
by Barbara Cooney
1996. Viking Juvenile.
9780670861590

Subject


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was an American activist, the longest-serving First Lady of the United States.

Scope


This book restricts itself to Eleanor Roosevelt's early life and education, beginning with her birth as "an ugly little thing" who was "a disappointment to her mother" for not being a boy. It covers the loss of her mother and father as well as her entrance into boarding school, where she becomes a special favorite of Mlle. Souvestre. The book ends before Eleanor meets her future husband, Franklin Roosevelt.

About the Illustrations


Those who are familiar with Barbara Cooney will appreciate these illustrations, which will put them in mind of Cooney's beloved Miss Rumphius. The illustrations are more functional than anything else, with lots of period details - clothing, children's games, etc. - and a realistic likeness of Roosevelt.

Author's Note


This book does not have an author's note per se, but it does include an "Afterword" which quickly summarizes Eleanor's life from the time she became First Lady until her death.

Additional Comments


Because most children studying Eleanor Roosevelt are doing so because she was the First Lady of the United States, this book's narrow focus renders it mostly useless for book reports and research assignments.  understand why an author might want to explore the lesser-known roles that Eleanor played during her lifetime, but as noble as it is to want to see her as a separate entity from her husband, there is not much of an audience for this kind of book among children in the target age range.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Good Queen Bess: The Story of Elizabeth I of England by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter Q)

Good Queen Bess:
The Story of Elizabeth I of England
 by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema
2001. HarperCollins.
9780688179618


Subject 


Elizabeth I (1533-1603), known as Good Queen Bess, was Queen of England and Ireland from 1559 to 1603.

Scope


This book claims to tell how "Elizabeth acted with tolerance and moderation in religious matters." It explains how she came to power, and how she ruled, including her refusal to marry and her odd relationship with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

About the Illustrations


The pictures in this book are done in the artistic style of the time period, with lots of detailed depictions of clothing. They are mainly useful in helping the reader keep track of the different key figures who played a role in Elizabeth's life.

Author's Note


The author's note appears at the beginning of this book, and sets the stage for the narrative to follow. It provides some basic information about the Protestant Reformation and the general nature of religious belief prior to Elizabeth's birth. A bibliography appears at the end of the book.

Additional Comments


Though this text downplays Elizabeth's anti-Catholicism, the language surrounding Catholics is generally pretty neutral. The Catholic church is described as it would have been seen through the eyes of Protestants, but I did not feel that the book painted the Church in an unfairly villainous light. Overall, I think I would feel comfortable using this book to teach my Catholic children about the Reformation, along with other resources from other perspectives.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Beatrix Potter and Her Paintbox by David McPhail (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter P)

Beatrix Potter and Her Paintbox
by David McPhail
2015. Henry Holt.
9780805091700

Subject


Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) is the English author and illustrator of such beloved tales as The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.

Scope 


This picture book biography begins with Beatrix's childhood, when she receives her mother's paint box. At first it seems as though the author is going to tell a particular anecdote from her childhood involving the paint box, but instead the text is largely just a list of facts: Beatrix fell ill, Beatrix did not like painting lessons, Beatrix wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book covers almost the entirety of her adulthood in the final two pages, but does not mention her death.

About the Illustrations


The watercolor and ink pictures are done in David McPhail's instantly recognizable style. They have lots of warm light in them, which portrays a coziness many young readers are likely to associate with Potter's stories. Unfortunately, the pictures are only direct translations of what is in the text, with no real additional details or personality. The color palette also makes the pictures feel old-fashioned, and almost boring.

Author's Note


This book does not include an author's note, but there is a dedication in which the author thanks Laura for encouraging him to write a book about his hero.

Additional Comments


This book might work as an introduction to this author for a kindergarten class, but it is unlikely to meet the requirements of most book report assignments, as it does not tell when the subject died, or even really how she became so well known. The text is true to real life, which is appreciated, but it doesn't do enough with those real-life details to warrant publishing this book in the first place.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Odetta, The Queen of Folk by Samantha Thornhill (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter O)

Odetta, The Queen of Folk
by Samantha Thornhill,
illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
2010. Scholastic Press.
9780439928182

Subject


Odetta (1930-2008) was an American civil rights activist and musician.

Scope


Written in verse, this book uses two main metaphors to explain the contribution of Odetta to the world of folk music. One is the symbol of a birdcage, used to convey experiences of being held back and set free, and the other is the black and white keys of the piano, which are used to represent the joyful and sorrowful moments of her life. The narrative begins with Odetta's birth, and describes a childhood during which she was prevented from making music. Then it explores her teen years, when her family was finally able to afford music lessons, and shows how these lessons led to her success as the "queen of folk." Her life story is set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, providing context about the Jim Crow laws, and the experiences of black people which inspired Odetta's songwriting.

About the Illustrations


The pictures have a dreamlike quality which matches the text, but they are hard to decode, especially for kids.

Author's Note


The author's note, "Ode to Odetta," provides straightforward information about Odetta's life, accompanied by a photograph of her with the illustrator, Stephen Alcorn. Also included is a list of Odetta's albums.

Additional Comments


This is an interesting book, but it's not very accessible to young readers. At times, it tries too hard to speak in a child's voice, using phrases like "Burning Ham" instead of Birmingham and "Lost Angeles" instead of Los Angeles, and at other times, the language is too complex and off-putting. I also find it strange - and annoying - that the author of the poem which serves as the book's text is not given any credit on the front cover.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter N)

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People
by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
2011. Henry Holt & Co.
9780805091984

Subject


Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

Scope 


In a child-like voice and spare prose, this book narrates Neruda's childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The text is accessible in the sense that its vocabulary is fairly easy to read, but it lacks clear transitions and quickly jumps from one point to the text. None of Neruda's poems are included. 

About the Illustrations


I enjoy Julie Paschkis's style, but as beautiful as these pictures are on a visual level, they are not especially functional. Many of them incorporate words which cannot be read coherently, as there is no indication as to the order they are intended to go in, and many of the words are in Spanish, and no translation is provided. I appreciated Paschkis trying to connect the book in some way to Neruda's poetry, since the text does not really do this, but the pictures still fall short.

Author's Note


The author's note explains Neruda's significance and provides the only poetry in the book: a quotation about Neruda by another poet. Information is given in the resources section about how to find Neruda's poetry, but the lack of poetry in a biography about a poet makes me wonder how this book ever got published.

Additional Comments


Kids who have to do book reports on poets or authors: beware. This title is unlikely to fulfill the requirements of your assignment. It might be pretty to look at, but otherwise, this book is a big disappointment.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by David Diaz (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter M)

Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert
by Gary D. Schmidt
illustrated by David Diaz
2012. Clarion Books.
9780547612188

Subject


Martin de Porres was a brother of the Dominican order who became the first black saint from the Americas when he was canonized in 1962.

Scope


The book begins with Martin's baptism as an infant, and spends quite a bit of time showing the limits that were placed on him because he was of mixed race. Then the focus shifts to Martin's work as a healer, and to some of the miracles associated with him.

About the Illustrations


Caldecott Medalist David Diaz is the illustrator, and his pictures didn't do much for me. I wanted more emotion in the figures' faces and more details overall. The images are certainly attractive, and even functional, but it was difficult for me to choose a favorite because none of them really jumped out at me.

Author's Note


The final page of the book briefly summarizes Martin's life and provides the details of his beatification and canonization. There isn't very much to the note - it would have been nice to hear more about why Gary D. Schmidt took an interest in this particular subject.

Additional Comments


This is a fine book for introducing a saint to young children. It can also spark discussions about the unfair treatment of children of mixed race during Martin's time, and it can serve as an introduction to social justice at a kid-friendly level. The "rose in the desert" metaphor is a bit overused in the text, which I found annoying, but this is a minor flaw in an otherwise strong biography.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter L)

Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer
by Robert Byrd
2003. Dutton Books for Young Readers
9780525470335


Subject


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a famous Italian intellectual who lived during the Renaissance.

Scope 


This comprehensive text covers everything a young reader could ever want to know about Leonardo da Vinci. Framed as a story about a man who thrived on the "hard parts" of things, the book starts with his childhood and moves through his apprenticeship to Verocchio in Florence, the painting of "The Last Supper" and creation of his famous notebooks during his time at the Court of Ludovico in Milan, the painting of "The Mona Lisa" in Venice, and Leonardo's return to Milan under the patronage of Giuliano de Medici. Context is provided on every page, in informational text boxes printed in small bold font, while the text proper is more of a story narrative. The book concludes with Leonardo's death.

About the Illustrations


The pictures in this book are richly detailed, and there is much to study and analyze on each page. The images help to explain and illuminate complex ideas, and they include many quotations from Leonardo's writings. (These also appear in abundance on the end papers.) The illustrations not only evoke the time period; they also make Leonardo da Vinci's work accessible to those who have no prior exposure to his art or ideas.

Author's Note


The author's note at the end of the book is brief, probably because there are so many detailed notes throughout the main text which provide historical context, scientific information, and brief sketches of key figures. There is also a timeline at the back of the book which condenses the major events of Leonardo's life down to a page and a half and also includes relevant events that took place following Leonardo's death. Finally, a bibliography provides resources for learning more about Leonardo, with a special section for children's and YA titles.

Additional Comments


This is just a phenomenal book, which can easily appeal to a wide range of ages. The text includes everything kids and young teens need to know to be conversant about Leonardo da Vinci, and undoubtedly, the information provided in this book will make them eager to learn more about many different things, including art, science, math, and history. This is a book to own and spend time with, and one to which kids can return again and again throughout their school years.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter K)

The Noisy Paint Box:
The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art
by Barb Rosenstock
illustrated by Mary Grandpré
2014. Alfred A. Knopf
9780307978486


Subject 

Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian artist known for his abstract paintings.

Scope


This book begins with Kandinsky's school years, during which he receives his first paint box. The paint box begins his journey as an artist and also brings about signs of synesthesia. The paint box follows him as he learns to accept his own unique style. 

About the Illustrations


Mary Grandpré, who illustrated the first American editions of the Harry Potter books, is the illustrator of this book, and she does not disappoint. She captures Kandinsky's experiences with synesthesia very well, using soft, dull images for ordinary things, and swirls of color and light when things "speak" to the artist. My favorite picture in the entire book is a page where Kandinsky simply cannot ignore all the colors speaking to him on the streets of Moscow. Among others, the "canary-colored mailbox whistling," and "ivory chorus of snowflakes" call to him, and Grandpré represents these strong appeals to the senses with a page full of color, where specific brush strokes represent each sound Kandinsky hears. Kandinsky himself stands at the center, wearing a hat and glasses, with his eyes closed. With or without the text, this is just a very appealing piece of artwork in its own right. When it comes to portraying Kandinsky's art itself, Grandpré does a great job of conveying the essence of his style without trying too hard to imitate it. Also included in the book are images of four of Kandinsky's original paintings.

Author's Note


In her note, the author calls this book "historical fiction" because the dialogue is all imagined. It's good for kids to realize that not everything Kandinsky says in the book is a direct quote, but I'm still comfortable calling the book non-fiction, as it gives biographical information about the artist, and explains his contributions to the art world. The author's note also includes an explanation of synesthesia, with resources for further study. Disappointingly, the illustrator provides no comment on her experience illustrating the book, the absence of which is deeply felt, since the book is about an artist. 

Additional Comments


Despite not being a huge fan of abstract art, I really enjoyed this book. It looks much more kid-friendly than the average picture book biography, and it will tie easily into art history lessons. Unlike many other subjects for picture book biographies, this is one kids will want to learn about even if they have never heard of him before, both because synesthesia is such an interesting and uncommon condition, and because they are likely to encounter abstract art in their studies.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Joan of Arc by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter J)

Joan of Arc 
by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel 
1896. The Pierpont Morgan Library and The Viking Press
 9780340257340
*Available online from The Rosetta Project.

Subject 


Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is a Roman Catholic saint who is considered a French heroine for her role in The Hundred Years' War.

Scope 


This book gives a brief introduction to Joan's childhood, then describes her earliest religious visions before jumping into her involvement in the Hundred Years' War where she bravely fought to restore Charles VII as the French king, under the guidance of Saints Michael the Archangel, Catherine, and Margaret.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations use delicate lines and intricate details to bring Joan's world to life. There are many battle scenes shown in the pictures, which include all the armor, swords, horses, torches, and ships any young reader could want. Wherever Joan appears on a page, her face always looks as though she is seeing and hearing things things that others cannot, and she shows a calmness and determination that really help the reader understand her attitude toward battle, and toward doing the will of God.

Author's Note


The original book does not seem to have an author's note, but the facsimile edition I read has an "Introduction" section preceding the text. This note, written by Pierpont Morgan Library's Curator of Early Children's Books, Gerald Gottlieb, lays out the political and military climate of Joan's time and explains how she became involved in the war. It also discusses the records from her time that make it possible for us to know all we do about her today.

Additional Comments


This is a truly inspiring book. Though it was written in the 1890s, it holds up just as well as, if not better than, any contemporary picture book biography. Kids who are not familiar with French history or geography might benefit from reading the book with a map nearby, as there are many place names mentioned that didn't mean anything to me. But even without much geographical knowledge, kids will love reading about Joan's exhilarating experience bringing her country to victory, and the agony of her suffering as she is later mistreated and punished for doing God's will. It's remarkable how much Joan's story parallels Christ's death, and for that understanding alone, every Catholic child should read this book.


Monday, April 11, 2016

LibraryAdventure.com: 5 Library-Themed Songs to Promote Literacy Skills

It's National Library Week! Celebrate the library in song with this list of tunes that will promote literacy skills in young children, which I recently posted at The Library Adventure.

The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer by Joanne Stanbridge (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter I)

The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: 
The True Story of a Famous American Composer
by Joanne Stanbridge
2012. HMH Books for Young Readers.
9780547238661



Subject


Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an American modernist composer.

Scope


Despite the title's suggestion that this book is about Charles Ives's music, most of it is actually devoted to the sinking of the Lusitania, an event which inspired Ives to write a particular piece. The text is written in the present tense, with very minimal biographical information, and it does nothing at all to suggest to the reader how Ives's music might sound. Five wordless spreads are devoted to dramatic moments during the sinking of the Lusitania which, though interesting, seem odd to include in a biography of a man who was not actually on the ship.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations are fine from an artistic standpoint, but they add many characters to the story that have neither a real connection to Ives nor any influence upon his work. There are lots of exaggerated and overly emotional faces which don't really match the text, and again, the wordless spreads seem strange and gratuitous.

Author's Note


There is a very brief author's note, which is accompanied by suggestions for "Further Reading and Listening" and a list of "Selected Sources." There is nothing in this note which is not already addressed by the text.

Additional Comments


The "Unanswered Question"  is how Charles Ives ended up in this picture book about the Lusitania. Not recommended.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter H)

Just Being Audrey
by Margaret Cardillo,
illustrated by Julia Denos
2011. Balzer + Bray.
9780061852831

Subject


Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) was a British actress and humanitarian.

Scope


This book provides a very sketchy outline of Audrey Hepburn's life beginning in young adolescence, continuing through her years as an actress, and finishing with her humanitarian work. The book takes a long view on her life, with equal weight given to each phase, and no broad exploration of any particular event or experience. Overall, the book is mostly about her personality and sense of style, not about her contributions to either the film industry or to society as a whole.

About the Illustrations


I wanted to read this book because of how much I enjoy Julia Denos's artwork. In that sense, it was not disappointing, because the pictures really are enjoyable to look at. Denos includes lots of Hepburn's different outfits, which would appeal to kids who are interested in fashion design, and she also does a nice job of slowly aging Hepburn from page to page without making her look like a cartoon.

Author's Note


The author's note from Margaret Cardillo is a personal anecdote explaining her interest in Hepburn as a subject for a book. Like the rest of the text, it assumes that the reader already knows who Audrey Hepburn is. While some kids may have seen one of her films, I imagine that most would not be familiar with her at all, so it's disappointing not to be given any context even in the back matter. There is also an illustrator's note which reveals that Julia Denos was unfamiliar with Hepburn prior to this book, and does talk some about working with this specific manuscript. Also included are a timeline and a bibliography.

Additional Comments


I questioned right away whether there is truly an audience for this book among picture book readers, and my guess is that there really isn't. Kids who aspire to become actors might choose to read the book for an assignment based on the fact that the subject is an actress, but it is unlikely that a child would be looking to read about Audrey Hepburn specifically. This book is also not a great way to learn about Hepburn, as the details are much too vague. For example, there is no explanation given as to why the Nazi invasion requires Hepburn's family to go into hiding, and any hardship they endured is quickly glossed over.  In reality, there were some sordid details - her parents were fascists, and her father was having an affair with the family's nanny - but surely there was a way to work in some more of the truth while still keeping the text age appropriate. It is disingenuous to avoid talking about conflict to the point that a Nazi invasion comes across as little more than an inconvenience. The fact that everything is smoothed over with chocolate from the UN also feels false, and gives kids a very skewed and dishonest picture of World War II. As lovely as it is to look at, I just cannot recommend this book.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw by Deborah Kogan Ray (Picture Book Biographies From A to Z - Letter G)

Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw
by Deborah Kogan Ray
2008. Viking.
9780670062928

Subject


Wanda Gag (1893-1946) was an American children's picture book author and illustrator, best known for Millions of Cats.

Scope 


The book opens with an explanation of how the reader probably knows of Wanda Gag (through her book, Millions of Cats), and then it dives into a beautifully written narrative of her life, based heavily on entries from her diary. Each page begins with a first-person quotation from the diary, and then the author provides further detail about Gag's cozy childhood filled with art and music, her father's own career as an artist cut short by his death from tuberculosis, and the hardships of her own young adulthood, as her mother grew frail and she was forced to support her younger siblings with whatever meager earnings she could make from her drawing. The story proper ends when Gag publishes and then receives a Newbery Honor for Millions of Cats.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations complement the text nicely, and they chart Gag's maturity from girlhood to adulthood without requiring lengthy explanations of fashion and hairstyles from the text.   The pictures help to bring the time period to life, and they also show Gag's sources of inspiration and her drawing techniques. Overall, they do precisely what the pictures in a picture book biography ought to do: support the text, without detracting from the information being presented.

Author's Note


There are three notes at the back of this book. "After Millions of Cats" follows the rest of Gag's picture book career, listing awards she won and her eventual return to the German fairy tales that inspired her during her teen years. "Wanda's Diary" explains the role of the diary entries in this book and also explains how and when she died. Finally, "Author's Note" tells how the author came to accent the A in Gag in the book, and describes how she was able to access the resources from which she took her information. The two-page spread showing the diary note and author's note also show an illustration from Millions of Cats - the one where the scrawny kitten drinks milk and grows fat.

Additional Comments


This is just a lovely book. It is accessible enough that it can be shared with the kindergartners and first graders who have heard Millions of Cats, but it also has appeal to older kids, and even to adults who remember reading the book at a younger age. The inclusion of quotes from the diary, and the author's access to the diary in general also really elevate this book above others of its genre and make it something I would want to re-read more than once. There is a specificity of detail and a feeling of personal confidence that just can't happen in books written about subjects who did not keep records in their own voices. I will definitely be reading this book to my kids after they have read Millions of Cats, and I would recommend it for elementary classrooms and library visits.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fannie in the Kitchen by Deborah Hopkinson (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter F)

Fannie in the Kitchen
by Deborah Hopkinson
illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
2000. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
9780689819650

Subject


Fannie Farmer (1857-1915) wrote the cookbook which introduced standardized measurements for recipes.

Scope


This is not a comprehensive biography of Fannie Farmer, but an exploration of the specific situations leading to her major contribution to the world of cooking. Told through the eyes of young Marcia Shaw, the daughter of a family for whom Fannie serves as mother's helper, the story explores how working for the Shaws may have helped Fannie to understand the need for more precise measurements for baking and cooking.

About the Illustrations


The illustrations have a lot of personality, and facial expressions are used to convey feelings of amusement, worry, frustration, and delight. There are lots of details about nineteenth century kitchens, as well as hints from Fannie Farmer's actual cookbook hanging as decorations on the walls of the Shaw house. The pictures convey the time period without feeling old-fashioned, and Marcia's humorous difficulties with her own culinary projects give the reader an easy entry point into the story.

Author's Note


The author's note reveals what little information is actually known about Fannie Farmer, and provides her recipe for griddle cakes. It's a short note, but it contains all the pertinent information, and, because it is included as the "Seventh Course" of the story, "The Nuts," readers are not as likely to miss it as they would be to pass by other books' authors' notes.

Additional Comments 


This book is shelved in the 600s at my local libraries, so I'm not sure it's a biography in the same sense as the others I'm reviewing this month. It would not be a great book report choice, but I think it would be a perfect elementary school read-aloud, just like this author/illustrator team's Apples to Oregon.


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