Picturebook Biographies

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed reading biographies, which combine the drama and dreams of individual lives with the grand scope of history, as well as a hint of the possible paths one could take in their own life... When you got all grown up and everything. Nowadays I like finding books like these and leaving them around the house for my kid to read... And I still love reading these stories myself, too, even though I'm all growed up and everything.


Other Topics | Main Book Reviews



"Footwork: The Story Of Fred And Adele Astaire"
Written by Roxane Orgill
Illustrated by Stephane Jorisch
(Candlewick, 2007)

Hollywood icon Fred Astaire was, arguably, the most famous dancer in the world, projected into tens of millions of minds over the decades, in film, in song, on video, over the radio and onstage. It's ironic, then, that when he started his career, as the junior dance partner to his older sister Adele, everyone assumed she was the one that destiny had big plans for... This elegantly crafted picturebook tells the tale of the Astaire siblings, who were headliners on the professional vaudeville circuit, and later on Broadway for over two decades, from 1906 to 1932. There's a lot of train travel involved, and a lot of Fred hanging around backstage, studying every nuance and trick of the trade among the diverse performers with whom they shared the stage. As the book explains, the Astaires started their act in a time before radio, TV or talking pictures, and conquering vaudeville placed them at the pinnacle of American popular culture. It was only when Adele announced her retirement -- so that she could marry -- that Fred turned his sights towards a film career, and hopped yet another train, this time to Hollywood, where he became the global star we know and love today. This is a great book for older children who love dance, or who appreciate history and the charm of bygone days... It's also a good introduction to or compliment to all those great old Fred Astaire films -- like Astaire himself, this one's a real class act. (B+)


"Strong Man: The Story Of Charles Atlas"
Written by Meghan McCarthy
Illustrated by Meghan McCarthy
(Knopf, 2007)

A charming, cartoonish bio of legendary bodybuilder Charles Atlas, who was one of the first entrepreneurs to market an exercise program to a mass audience, through his once ubiquitous magazine ads... Atlas was also a showman and celebrity, and crafted his own public image, so some of the "facts" in this book may be up for debate, notably the narrative of Atlas as a skinny weakling who had sand kicked in his face at the beach, etc. Fitness buffs may also dispute the Atlas claims that his physique was built purely by using his "isometric" exercises: most people think a lot of weightlifting was also involved. Nonetheless, this book was entertaining and well-paced, and may inspire young readers to become more physically fit themselves. Included at the end of the book are a handful of Atlas-endorsed workouts to get them started (B+)


"Purple Mountain Majesties: The Story Of Katherine Lee Bates And America The Beautiful"
Written by Barbara Younger
Illustrated by Stacey Schuett
(Dutton, 1998)

A profile of the poet who wrote the lyrics to "America The Beautiful..." Bust this one out on the Fourth Of July! (B)


"The 39 Apartments Of Ludwig Van Beethoven"
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Barry Blitt
(Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2006)

This offbeat, pseudo-historical lark takes its inspiration from an odd historical fact, that famed composer Ludwig Van Beethoven actually moved in and out of thirty-nine different apartments while living in Vienna... Author Jonah Winter tries to fill in the blanks, imagining neighbors and landlords made irate by the noise Beethoven made while composing his numerous masterpieces, as well as the difficulties inherent in repeatedly moving with five pianos in tow. The humor of the book is best suited for older kids, as well as for those with a very dry, droll sense of the absurd. Illustrator Barry Blitt, best known for his work for The New Yorker, helps build the sense of ascerbic humor... This didn't entirely grab me, and it was hard to imagine the book's real audience, outside of classical music buffs and prodigies... But it does have a nice, oddball charm. Worth checking out. (B)


"Barnum Brown: Dinosaur Hunter"
Written & illustrated by David Sheldon
(Walker Books, 2006)

This is an excellent biographical picturebook about pioneering paleontologist Barnum Brown, who discovered the first Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils while working for the New York Museum of Natural History in the early 1900s. Brown was part of the second major wave of dinosaur discoveries, having grown up thrilling to the discoveries of earlier scientists in the 1880s, but his discovery of the carnivorous T-Rex was one of the field's biggest landmarks, sparking the imagination of kids and adults (and moviemakers, etc) for generations to come. Over the course of several expeditions, Brown discovered two full T-Rex skeletons, one of which has been mounted in the Natural History Museum for the last hundred years... This book is plainly written and nicely illustrated. It is perhaps better for slightly older readers -- maybe 8-10 year olds? -- there aren't a lot of flashy pictures of T-Rexes, but rather a focus on Brown himself, and his excavations. The dinosaurs exist mostly in his mind's eye, which is nice because this is really a story about science and scientific exploration, and of finding one's calling in life and pursuing it through hard work and inspiration. Fans of the museum itself should enjoy this book as well -- a nice glimpse into its history and the growth of its amazing collections. Recommended! (B)


"Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur In The World"
Written by Tracey Fern
Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
(Farrar Strauss, 2012)

(-)


"Rachel: The Story Of Rachel Carson"
Written by Amy Erlich
Illustrated by Wendell Minor
(Holiday House, 2003)

An evocative profile of writer Rachel Carson, whose essays on marine life made her internationally famous and whose final book, 1962's "Silent Spring," became a touchstone for the global environmental movement. "Silent Spring" documented the harmful effects of DDT and other chemicals used as insecticides and herbicides, compounds which due to their widespread and unregulated use had been killing, deforming or depopulating various species of wild animals. Carson was one of the first science writers to take these concerns seriously and, more importantly, to write about them in a way that average, lay readers could understand. This book has a ind of stately presentation, each page presenting an iconic tableau from Carson's life... The artwork emphasizes natural splendor, and is designed to accentuate wide-open spaces, evoking the sense of wonder Carson felt in the natural world. Initially these panels have a free-standing, mildly disconnected feel, but the narrative flow improves as the author gets into the genesis and impact of "Silent Spring," and Carson's death and legacy are dealt with very tactfully but directly. (This is in interesting contrast to Laurie Lawlor's book (below) which explores Carson's youth more, and gives a rather clipped account of her later years... Guess they compliment each other then!) (B+)


"Rachel Carson And Her Book That Changed The World"
Written by Laurie Lawlor
Illustrated by Laura Beingessner
(Holiday House, 2012)

This well written, beautifully illustrated picturebook This book presents Carson's life from early childhood, showing how her interest in nature and science was fostered at a young age, and how she overcame the professional challenges that faced her as a young woman pursuing these interests in the more patriarchal culture of the 1940s and '50s. Although the presentation is quite strong, the narrative does end abruptly with Carson's death (she was gravely ill while writing and editing "Silent Spring") and the book's public policy impact is explained in tiny text, after the illustrated portion of the book, so younger readers might not quite "get" what was so important about Carson's work. Still, it's a very good introductory biography, and an excellent launch pad for further discussions about these issues. (One note: In recent years a denialist movement has been instituted which claims that DDT had no adverse health effects, and that restricting its use has "caused" deaths in the Third World that supposedly could have been prevented by a more vigorous chemical attack on malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This politically motivated argument is similar to that of the anti-climate change denialists, and ignores decades of data as well as the development of improved mitigation efforts, including better health education and less harmful chemical agents. Also, the argument that DDT supposedly caused "no harm" focuses only on humans, -- mostly healthy adult male soldiers in WWII -- and not on the foetal or childhood impacts, or on the chemical's impact on other species. It is not, in my opinion, a serious argument and does not address the actual issues that were raised by Carson's work, or in the numerous studies which have come since which confirmed her findings. Make of it what you will. I think it's a clumsy effort to discredit environmentalism in general, and doesn't have much to do with the specific issues which were dealt with several decades ago.) (B+)


"Dreamer From The Village: The Story Of Marc Chagall"
Written by Michelle Markel
Illustrated by Emily Lisker
(Henry Holt, 2004)

The life of modern painter Marc Chagall, who was born in Russia but became famous in the Parisian art world of the 1920s. This book places heavy emphasis on his Jewish roots and rural upbringing -- we don't really get to see his artwork until late in the book, and his life as a cosmopolitan celebrity is detailed in an appendix at the end, mostly this is a young artist's journey into self-fulfillment. The text has a dreamy tone, complimented by the bold, colorful artwork; only one of Chagall's own paintings is reproduced in the postscript, so you might want to find a good book of his work to gaze at along with this one. Nice, though! Markel does a good job evoking Chagall's inner life and the impulse that drove him to create his own unique art style. (B+)


"Seeker Of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs"
Written by James Rumford
Illustrated by James Rumford
(Houghton Mifflin, 2000)

A biography of French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, who from an early age was drawn to Egyptian history, and in particular to deciphering the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing. Although an Englishman, Thomas Young was the first one to crack part of the code, Champollion was the first to really get it right by realizing that some characters were words, while others were letters, and to form a complete understanding of hieroglyphic language. The text mixes hieroglyphic symbols into each page and demonstrates how various characters were used, while keeping the flow if the story intriguing and fresh. This book does a particularly nice job painting a picture of social and scientific life in Napoleonic-era France, as well as kindling interest in Egyptian history. Recommended! (B+)


"Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight"
Written by Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Amy June Bates
(Simon & Schuster, 2008)

Hillary Rodham Clinton - mother, lawyer, governor's wife, First Lady, politician and United States Senator, was a Presidential candidate when this picturebook biography was published, running against a young Barack Obama. (Her subsequent successes as Secretary of State are not covered, but it's still an amazing story!) Author Kathleen Krull focusses on Clinton's challenges as a young girl, then a young woman in pre-feminist America: as a girl, she dreamt of becoming an astronaut, and as a law student she had to search for a program that would accept "girls" as equals to men (however, her struggles with an intransigent, obstructionist Republican party, or with her husband's marital infidelities are left out of the narrative...) Of course, against all of these challenges she persevered, and determination in the face of adversity is a major theme of this inspirational portrait. It would be nice to get an update showing more of Secretary Clinton's successes, but her accomplishments up through '08 were pretty impressive: perhaps Krull should wait to see if a rumored 2016 Presidential bid pans out as well? Anyway, this is a very good book for younger readers interested in current events, or looking for strong female role models to identify with. Recommended! Recommended! (B)


"The Fantastic Undersea Life Of Jacques Cousteau"
Written by Dan Yaccarino
Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
(Knopf, 2009)

A superb picturebook biography of French ocean diver Jacques Cousteau, with luminous artwork by author-illustrator Dan Yaccarino. I've admired Yaccarino's work in the past, but think he's really outdone himself on this one, taking full advantage of the pages and palettes before him. Plus, what a great story: Cousteau's accomplishments are amazing, from creating the first scuba suits to pioneering small, single-pilot submarines. And who knew he built (and staffed) an underwater research station, where divers lived underwater for over a month? Yaccarino's colorful work stands in the shadows of Jennifer Berne's earlier Manfish picturebook; hopefully readers will find the two to be complimentary; what I regret is that the old "Fantastic World" TV series is no longer available, having been distilled down to a few DVDs under a different title. Still, this book will evoke a sense of wonder in children and rekindling it in their parents. Recommended! (A+)


"When Bob Met Woody: The Story Of The Young Bob Dylan"
Written by Gary Golio
Illustrated by Marc Burckhardt
(Little, Brown, 2011)

Two icons of 20th century American folk are given their due in this evocative, celebratory childens' picturebook. It's primarily the biography of young Bob Dylan, a Jewish kid from the Northeast who got into folk music and crafted a persona that led him to global fame. Dylan's early emulation of dustbowl troubadour Woody Guthrie is often seen as the juvenilia he transcended when he became the great hippie poet of the '60s, but there was a reason he was drawn to Guthrie's work. Both men shared a wild, defiant streak, and Guthrie was a freakier, more iconoclastic artist than he's given credit, a creative wellspring who ushered in the singer-songwriter era, decades before it had a name. This book is a great introduction to that creative spirit, and to the work of two of the best American songwriters of their eras. Recommended! (B+)


"Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean"
Written by Sarah Stewart Taylor
Illustrated by Ben Towle
(Disney Hyperion/Center For Cartoon Studies, 2010)

This brisk, compelling graphic novel tells the story of aviator Amelia Earhart's historic 1928 transatlantic flight, viewing it through the eyes of a young girl living in the Newfoundland village that Earhart embarked from... The writing is economical, and the artwork is expansive and uncluttered, recalling the work of cartoonists such as Seth and Scott McCloud. Both elements mesh perfectly, and while the narrative (wisely) is not crammed with details, it is evocative and propulsive. If you're looking for an Earhart bio that's appropriate for younger readers, this is an excellent introduction to her legacy: my kid read it several times in a row and definitely got Amelia fever. Highly recommended. (A+)


"America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle"
Written by David A. Adler
Illustrated by Terry Widener
(Gulliver Books, 2000)

An exciting account of the first time a woman swam across the English Channel. American-born Gertrude Ederle was a swimming phenomenon in the 1920s, setting numerous records and competing in 1924 Paris Olympics (winning several gold medals!) She made two attempts to cross the Channel, in 1925 and '26 -- on her first try she had to stop halfway, but after working with a new trainer, she went back and not only swam the Channel in rough weather, she also beat the record set by the best male swimmer of the time. Ederle's well-publicized stunt was seen as a bellwether for women's equality, and many commentators were ready to pounce on any failure; her triumph was seen as a major blow to the notion of male superiority. A great book for fans of women's athletics, with a strong message about the value of perseverance. If at first you don't succeed, swim, swim again. Nice artwork, too, with an appropriately Art Deco look to it which evokes the era... (A)


"Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein"
Written by Don Brown
Illustrated by Don Brown
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

An excellent picturebook biography of physicist Albert Einstein, emphasizing his early years and his difficulties fitting in with his peers and following the dictates of his teachers, who he found dull and distasteful. A nice parable for many young readers who might feel like outsiders, particularly since Einstein turned out to be such a cool dude. By the way, this is nicely supplemented by Elizabeth MacLeod's denser, but equally lucid (and pleasantly chatty!) Albert Einstein: A Life of Genius... There are a bazillion Einstein books out there, but these two are good picks for younger readers. (A+)


"Blockhead: The Life Of Fibonacci"
Written by Joseph D'Agnese
Illustrated by John O'Brien
(Henry Holt, 2010)

This is a very good picturebook biography of Leonardo Fibonacci, a 12th-13th Century Italian mathematician who brought the Arabic numeral system (1, 2, 3, 4...) (as opposed to the Roman system of I, II, III, IV...) to the Europeans of the Middle Ages. Fibonacci also presented the numeric pattern that came to be known as "Fibonacci numbers," a geometrically spiraling sequence that coincides with a number of patterns seen in the natural world. At first I was put off by the Peter Sis-like artwork, but once I actually read the text, I was totally drawn in. This book presents a lot of information both concisely and compellingly and is a great entry point into complex mathematical thinking -- not too detailed or too dumbed-down. My daughter really enjoyed it and was inspired to find out more about this pivotal historic figure. Recommended! (A)


"Sky High: The True Story Of Maggie Gee"
Written by Marissa Moss
Illustrated by Carl Angel
(Tricycle Press, 2009)

This is a marvelous biographical picturebook telling the story of Maggie Gee, a young Chinese-American student who dropped her studies and enlisted in World War Two, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. She became as member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and worked as a flight instructor until the WASPs were disbanded in 1944. Her story is told as a low-key, matter-of-fact first-person narrative, allowing readers to fill in the blanks regarding the social setting and the significance of Ms. Gee's determination and accomplishments. (Racial discrimination is touched on lightly in a scene where a fellow pilot mistakes Ms. Gee for an enemy spy -- she just walked up, said "hi" and shook his hand.) A brief appendix outlines her postwar accomplishments - among other things, she returned to her studies and became a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs.) Her story is a marvelous inspiration for Asian-American and female readers, as well as anyone interested in aviation pioneers - highly recommended, particularly for classroom use. (A+)


"The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert & Sullivan"
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Richard Egielski
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009)

A beautifully illustrated, historically-oriented picturebook telling of the rocky creative partnership of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, the librettist and composer of some of the greatest comedic operas in the English language. Richard Egielski's highly stylized artwork is beautifully designed and delightful, drawing inspiration from sources such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as classic Japanese painters and print artists whose work influences the pages for "The Mikado." I had a harder time with the text, though, which seems to affect a wry, insouciant Gilbertian air, but also assumes the reader's familiarity with the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, and perhaps does not explain the story as well or as plainly as it might have. For example, Sullivan complains at the start that Gilbert's operas are always "the same," but Winter doesn't elaborate: how were they the same? Are they all tragedies? All of them about the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock? He refers to the "topsy-turvy" stories, but doesn't really explain what they are. Although he does try to bring the readers into the mindset of the Victorian world, Winter cuts corners where he doesn't need to, and may leave some readers (myself included) a bit in the cold. For families already immersed in Gilbert & Sullivan, though, this book will be a delight, particularly if you've got the cast recordings to back it up. A very classy book about some very classy, very funny art. (B+)


"As Good As Anybody"
Written by Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Raul Colon
(Harper Collins, 2007)

This is a good nonfiction picturebook for older children interested in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. It compares the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish Jew who fled the Holocaust as a young man and came to the United States, where he was drawn into the civil rights movement, and became one of MLK's allies in the Jewish community. Both men were bright, articulate and charismatic, and they were both motivated by their sensitivity to injustice, which they saw plenty of in their own young lives. The book shows how people from different cultures and divergent faiths can join together for a common good, and transcend the differences that are often used to keep people apart. Although their religious faith is mentioned, it is used in a restrained, tasteful way, making the book accessible to more secular or nondenominationally-oriented readers. Good starting point for a 20th Century civics/history lesson. (B+)


"Delivering Justice: W.W. Law And The Fight For Civil Rights"
Written by Jim Haskins
Illustrated by David A. Johnson
(Candlewick Press, 2005)

This is an excellent biographical picturebook presenting the story of Georgia-born Westley Wallace Law, a postal worker who helped organize the nonviolent civil rights movement that desegregated the city of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1960s. As the book points out, Savannah's desegregation campaign was far less violent than in other Southern cities, in part because of the work that Law and his allies did to foster dialog between black and white citizens, gaining white support for a citywide boycott that lasted nearly two years, from 1960-61. The author does a good job presenting the kinds of injustices and prejudice that African-Americans faced in the 1940s and '50s, as seen through the eyes of the young W. W. Law, first as a child and then as a young man - the artwork by Benny Andrews is nicely textured, colorful and appealing. This book, which concentrates on a less well-known Southern battle, is an excellent resource for broadening young reader's knowledge of the American Civil Rights movement. Recommended! (B+)


"Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became An Inventor"
Written by Emily Arnold McCully
Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2006)

An excellent nonfiction book, particularly for families in search of strong historical female role models. This beautifully illustrated picturebook is the biography of Margaret E. Knight, a 19th Century inventor who began tinkering around at a very young age and hwo, at the age of eleven, invented a safety device that prevented industrial accidents in the New England textile mills. She later became involved in a patent dispute with a businessman who stole her design for industrially produced paper bags, a device that established her as the inventor of the folding paper bags we still use today. This is a great book for slightly older kids -- it has a relatively long text, and the sequence in which one of her friends is injured in a factory acident -- which spurred Ms. Knight to invent the textile rails -- may be a little upsetting. Overall, this is a great book; if you're on an American history kick and notice a shortage of female heros, this book may help fill the gap. (BTW, Emily Arnold McCully has authored several other biographies that you might want to check out as well...) (A)


"You Never Heard Of Sandy Koufax?!"
Written by Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Andre Carrilho
(Swartz & Wade Books, 2009)

This is a great book for sports-minded kids, especially baseball fanatics... Personally, I'm not much of a sports fan, but I found this biographical picturebook about pitcher Sandy Koufax to be pretty engrossing... Koufax, one of the first Jewish players to crack into major league baseball, was a flop in his first few years playing for the Dodgers... Then suddenly he caught fire, and was one of the hottest players of the 1960s. Just as suddenly, he decided to quit professional baseball, and abruptly retired, leaving behind one of the best pitching records in the game. This book tells his story, told in the working-class voice of one of his teammates, accompanied by wildly stylish, almost avant-garde artwork from Portugal's Andre Carrilho, whose rubbery lines snap with kinetic motion. The book is also laced with statistics-laden sidebars, the kind of thing that true sports buffs love. This first edition also features gold gilt ink throughout an a dazzling holographic-motion cover (which I doubt will be included in future editions... ) All in all, a classy package -- a perfect present for a budding baseball fan. (A)


"Abraham Lincoln"
Written by Amy L. Cohn & Suzy Schmidt
Illustrated by David A. Johnson
(Scholastic Books, 2002)

This is a good, basic picturebook biography of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America. The text covers his pioneer childhood and steady ascent into local and state politics, and covers his presidency rather briefly - a good springboard into further study of Lincoln's life, though perhaps it leaves a little to be desired all by itself. I enjoyed the elegant, fine-line drawings by David A. Johnson, which had a touch of 19th-Century newspaper cartooning about them, and a slight echo of the masterful Winsor McKay (of "Little Nemo" fame). A good introductory American history book for grade-school readers. (B+)


"Mother To Tigers"
Written by George Ella Lyon
Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
(Atheneum, 2003)

A celebratory picturebook biography of Helen Martini, who in 1944 was hired as the first female zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo, in New York. Ms. Martini also pioneered the science of nursing newborn animals in captivity, creating a nursery program at the Bronx Zoo that became the model for zoos across the globe. The text is simple and straightforward, perfectly complimented by Peter Catalanotto's elegant artwork. Highly recommended for animal lovers and young nonfiction readers. (B+)


"Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas"
Written by Cheryl Bardoe
Illustrated by Jos. A. Smith
(Harry Abrams, 2006)

This is an excellent picturebook introducing young readers to the groundbreaking work of Austrian scientist Gregor Mendel, who in the 19th Century basically created the science of genetics with his visionary work hybridizing plants and recording the results of these hybridizations. For centuries, farmers had known how to improve yields in crops and livestock through selective breeding, but no one understood the scientific mechanisms at play -- genetics -- until Mendel discovered the principles of dominant and recessive genes through nearly a decade worth of experimentation. This beautifully illustrated, intelligently written book explains the basics of Mendel's work without dumbing it down or bogging down in the details. The narrative effectively focusses on the arc of Mendel's life (surprisingly, his results went unnoticed for decades after he first published his studies, a fact I did not know until I read this with my kid...) and is compelling both dramatically and scientifically. My kid really liked this one, and has been spurred on to dig deeper into the topic. Recommended for parents, teachers, and their science-hungry kids! (A+)


"Basketball Belles: How Two Teams And One Scrappy Player Put Women's Hoops On The Map"
Written by Sue Macy
Illustrated by Matt Collins
(Holiday House, 2011)

The story of the first women's college basketball game -- fought between Stanford and UC Berkeley in 1896 -- told from the viewpoint of Agnes Morley, one of the members of the Stanford team. (Morley was a fascinating character who also wrote an autobiography called No Life For A Lady, about her childhood as a Southwestern rancher's kid in the 1880s.) The story here focusses mainly on the game itself, with a fair amount of play-by-play framed lovely realistic illustrations that evoke the waning days of the 19th Century. Young athletes and their families will love this book, which addresses the old taboos against "girls" playing sports, and also gives a vigorous account of an exciting and historic match. Too bad Cal lost, though. (A+)


"The Snow Baby: The Arctic Childhood Of Admiral Robert E. Peary's Daring Daughter"
Written by Katherine Kirkpatrick
(Holiday House, 2007)

This is a short, well-written, spellbinding biography of Marie Peary, the daughter of the famed 19th Century explorer Robert E. Peary, who was credited with being the first man to reach the North Pole. Peary's final success came in 1909, after nearly three decades of struggle and hardship, punctuated by near-death accidents and extensive speaking tours designed to raise funds for his quest. In 1893, on one of several polar expeditions, Peary brought his wife along and she gave birth to their daughter Marie in a remote Arctic outpost; Marie spent her earliest months in the long Arctic night, and was initially raised among the rugged sailors and tribal Inuit who worked with Peary on his journeys. Her dramatic, unusual birth fit into the whirlwind of publicity that surrounded Peary's work, so that not only was she a child of the frozen north, she was also born into celebrity, and she accepted these circumstances with a calm, even cheerfulness and a strength of character that clearly reflected that of both her parents. Along with a bright, cogent narrative text, this book includes several magical photographs of the Pearys that beautifully bring the narrative to life: there are photos of Admiral Peary in the icy wastes, of their ships, trapped for months inside frozen harbors, of the Inuit and their gorgeous sled dogs and -- most strikingly -- photos of young Marie Peary, clad in fur with her eyes full of life and joy and utterly fearless and bright. Both her story and her strong character are remarkable, and will enthrall children and adults alike. Highly recommended! (A+)


"What To Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke The Rules, Charmed The World, And Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!"
Written by Barbara Kerley
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(Scholastic Press, 2008)

An enchanting picturebook biography of Alice Roosevelt, the irrepressible, vivacious daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. She was a lively, headstrong young woman whose social life and travels became the topic of news stories and gossip columns, making her an early American celebrity in the pre-radio, pre-television era. She was also politically savvy and was part of her father's PR machinery, attending functions, throwing parties, marrying a politician herself, and becoming a major figure on the Washington DC social scene. Most of all, Alice Roosevelt was a free spirit and did as she pleased, a trait that makes her as charming to modern-day readers as it did in her own era. This is a lovely book, particularly for parents and educators looking for strong historical female role models, with the text supported by lively, colorful illustrations. Recommended! (A)


"Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt!"
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Peachtree, 2009)

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"Teedie: The Story Of Young Teddy Roosevelt"
Written and illustrated by Don Brown
(Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

A brief but excellent picturebook biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, telling his story from the point of view of Roosevelt as a small child, growing into manhood. TR's early years hold a perennial appeal for younger readers: when he was quite little, Roosevelt suffered from asthma and was a bit of a wallflower, pale, thin and withdrawn, but in his adolescence he subscribed to a program of rigorous physical improvement, and remade himself as the rough, tough, blustering. larger-than-life character who come to dominate American politics at the dawn of the 20th Century. This book is a quick read, but may help spur interest in Roosevelt's life and times; one drawback is that his major accomplishments in life -- trust-busting, regulatory reform, spearheading the Panama Canal -- are mentioned only quite briefly at the end. Still, it's a compelling narrative, and the tone of the text is nicely complimented by Don Brown's expressive yet economical artwork. If you enjoy this book, Brown has made about a dozen other biographical books of equally high calibre, including ones on several less well-known historical figures. (A)


"Deborah Sampson Goes To War"
Written by Bryna Stevens
(Yearling Books, 1991)

A great young-reader history book about a fascinating 18th Century historical character that few folks have heard of... Deborah Sampson was an American colonist who disguised herself as a man and fought, for three years, as a soldier in the American Continental army. Wounded twice, she managed to keep her disguise a secret and return to the front, although at the war's end, her secret was revealed and she was awarded a veteran's pension. It's an amazing story, told at easy-reader level - clearly written and compelling. If you're looking for strong female historical role models, Ms. Sampson was a doozy! (A)


"The Fabulous Flying Machines Of Alberto Santos-Dumont"
Written by Victoria Griffith
Illustrated by Eva Montanari
(Abrams, 2011)

Everybody knows the story of how the Wright Brothers were the first people to successfully fly an airplane, right? How they claimed victory in the race to conquer flight and all-time historical bragging rights for us Americans? Well, turns out not quite everybody tells the story that way... Apparently there was this fancy guy named Alberto Santos-Dumont, a dashing young Brazilian living in Paris who was known for flying his private dirigible everywhere he went, and about the same time as Wilbur and Orville, he started tinkering with airplane designs and got one off the ground in 1906, flying for about seven-hundred feet in a plane he called the 14 Bis. Now, sure, the Wright Brothers flew earlier, in 1903, but their planes needed to be launched from the ground, basically flung into the air like a rubber band, while the 14 Bis got off the ground on its own power, which met the European criteria for a successful self-powered flight by a fixed-wing aircraft. So a lot of folks in Europe and South America grew up with Santos-Dumont as their aviation hero, not those Yankee pretenders. Either way, this is a great story about a very flamboyant and irrepressible character. Great artwork, and a nice evocation of French life in the Belle Epoque. Recommended! (A+)


"Boys Of Steel: The Creators Of Superman"
Written by Marc Tyler Nobleman
Illustrated by Ross MacDonald
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

A loving tribute to the writer-illustrator team of Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster, two kids from Cleveland who created the most famous superhero of all time: it's a bird, it's a plane, its... SOOPERMAN!! Drawn in the fluid-yet-rough style of the original 1930s "Superman" stories -- the stories that changed the face of American publishing -- this book tells the story of how two nerdy highschoolers dreamt up a new kind of hero, and how they got their work published, despite great odds. The book reads well, like the simplest, best superhero books, and gives a nice insight into how Superman was created, and why. Although the story doesn't dwell on how Superman may or may not have been a projection of Jewish ideals and morality onto a world facing the Holocaust and World War II, it does address the misery of the Great Depression and, perhaps more importantly, the personal tragedy of Jerry Seigel's own life: a panel showing how his father died of a heart attack while a victim of a late-night robbery is an image straight out of the Batman series, and does much to explain Seigel's interest in creating a character who could defend the little guys from the forces of evil. The choice of illustrator Ross MacDonald makes perfect sense, since he has already paid homage to the superhero genre in books like Another Perfect Day, and he hits the nail right on the head with this perfectly paced picturebook. Probably best for older kids, but a fine biographical work, with a fun, positive tone. (Note: although the main story sticks to a celebratory tone, the written postscript includes an even-handed explanation of the lengthy legal struggle that Jerry Seigel waged against DC Comics, after the media giant stiffed him and Schuster from receiving any portion of the royalties from the lucrative Superman movie franchise... You don't have to read the postscript, but it's nice to know it's there.) (B+)


"Voice From The Wilderness: The Story Of Anna Howard Shaw"
Written & illustrated by Don Brown
(Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Several years ago, veteran children's book author Don Brown undertook the creation of a series of biographical picturebooks meant to address what he saw as a shortage of historical nonfiction works that would be engaging to younger readers without being either gooey or dull. He also wanted to cover well-known figures (such as Albert Einstein or Teddy Roosevelt) with a fresh perspective, or to uncover lesser-known figures who might have been left out of the old-school textbooks of the past. On every front the series is a smashing success, as seen in this lively book about the frontiers-y life of Anna Howard Shaw, who I -- like most readers -- had never heard of before. Devotees of "Little House On The Prairie" will delight in Ms. Shaw's story -- like Laura Ingalls, her family moved from the comforts of the East Coast into the wilderness of the American interior, to a remote, grim cabin in the Great lakes region, where she labored on the family farm and became a schoolmarm when still a teenager, having self-taught herself by reading her family's entire modest library as a child. Chafing at this limited role, Shaw struggled to go to college, and gained a professional degree, then later in life became a key member of the inner circle of women's rights suffragettes in the late 19th Century. An inspiring story that echos other pioneer tales as well as provides an early historical role model for budding feminists. Recommended! (A+)


"Hiromi's Hands"
Written & Illustrated by Lynne Barasch
(Lee & Low Books, 2007)

A marvelous true story about Hiromi Suzuki, a Japanese-American whose father was a traditionally-trained sushi chef (or itamae) who emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s, and started his own small restaurant in Manhattan. As a young girl, Hiromi expressed interest in the family business and her father, despite having been trained in the rigidly-ordered and entirely male-dominated sushi business in Japan, was willing to train her to become an itamae herself. This is a great book, promoting the values of feminism, entrepreneurship and discipline, as well as encouraging an interest in Japanese cuisine and Asian culture. Well written and more engaging than you might imagine - the book has a wonderful tone that will draw in many young readers. (A)


"The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story Of Bob And Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas And Brand New Colors"
Written by Chris Barton
Illustrated by Tony Persiani
(Charlesbridge, 2009)

The design-oriented among us will delight in this beautifully formatted nonfiction book profiling Bob and Joe Switzer, two brothers from California who discovered the vibrant color range we now call "Day-Glo." The Switzers originally experimented with fluorescent paints -- created to enhance a magic show they developed that involved glow-in-the-dark dyes and blacklight illumination -- but in 1935 they accidentally made a fluorescent ink that showed up in daylight. The rest is history. The brothers developed and licensed out a wide variety of "Day-Glo" products; initially many applications were related to the military effort in World War Two -- fluorescent life preservers and aircraft carrier landing strips, and the like. Then came the myriad highlighters and post-its of the modern era, and all those kooky bright clothes in the '80s. This is a nice book about creative thought, scientific experimentation, good old American know-how and perseverance... It's also stylishly designed and clever; a nice read perhaps best for slightly older kids who are of a science-y bent. (A)


"The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off To America's Women Of The West"
Written by Holly George-Warren
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

This is a wonderful book examining cowgirls as an American cultural icon, including profiles of country singers and screen stars as well as actual, rootin'-tootin' cowpunchin' rodeo riders and pioneer gals like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. The book is brief and concise, but packed with great anecdotes and profiles, as well as a trove of gorgeous western memorabilia and vintage photographs. The photos were what floored me most, especially some of the older pictures of female rodeo riders with some of the most striking expressions... and pretty horses, too! Author Holly George-Warren has delved into various aspects of "western" country culture before, but this emphasis on the contributions of women in particular is kinda nice. The light, celebratory tone is welcome, too, just right for younger readers. Highly recommended. (A)




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