As we approach Black History month, I have been reading many wonderful picture book biographies about African-Americans. I am particularly drawn to those about women, as I have two little girls who are always eager to hear stories of other triumphant girls. Vashti Harrison’s collection, Bold Women in Black History, celebrates 40 outstanding women and provides a snippet of their lives in a fun an accessible way. Her sweet, cartoon-like illustrations give a taste of each of these women’s character to accompany her lively descriptions. From those I was familiar with like Sojourner Truth and Ella Fitzgerald to those I didn’t know of like filmmaker Julie Dash, and tennis champion, Althea Gibson. The women are arranged chronologically from the mid 1700s through present. In addition, I enjoyed Harrison’s “More Little Leaders” section at the end of the text, which challenges readers to find connections between these additional women and the women featured in the main text. This is a wonderful introduction to these women and amazing to have them collected in such an accessible way.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for upper elementary and middle school students studying biography. She does such a nice job encapsulating the shining points of each of these women’s lives, which sets a good example for students assigned to do the same in their coursework.
Having planted a butterfly garden myself with my girls (though sadly in a spot with not quite enough water for it to thrive), I was drawn to Butterfly Park with its inviting cover illustration. I also sympathized with a park for butterflies that had no butterflies. In Elly Mackay’s beautifully written and illustrated story, a little girl moves to a new town and is sad to lose both the friends and the butterflies that were in her old town. Through a series of both social and natural exploration, she discovers new friends in her neighborhood and also discovers where the butterflies have gone. Together, they make a new home for the butterflies and turn their grey town into a gorgeous, lively place full of butterflies. The story is a bright example of how inquiry leads to new knowledge and to a beautiful result. The culmination of the story with a foldout illustration revealing then newly planted Butterfly Park is magical. I wish I knew more about how Mackay did her collage-like illustrations. They have the elegant feel of a turn-of-the-Century paper doll set. Her other books, If You Hold a Seed and Fall Leaves, as well as her newest, Waltz of the Snowflakes, also published by Running Brook Press, are all beautifully written and illustrated as well.
Suggested Ages: Her books are designed for students ages 4-8 or grades preK-3. The story line is simple and she does a wonderful job of building up suspense. Her illustrations are both complex and naturalistic and will captivate any reader including adults.
I have always enjoyed word play and now have two avid young readers at home who are working on building their “collections of interesting words”. So, I was delighted to come across Jeri Chase Ferris’s biography of Noah Webster. She has written a number of wonderful picture book biographies, but Noah Webster and His Words is my favorite. Ferris tells the story of Webster, a headstrong and bright little boy, creating a vivid sense of his young personality. She elegantly weaves Webster’s story together with the time period during the American Revolution, and playfully peppers the text with definitions of “interesting” words like “em-bar-rass-ment” and “sur-ren-dered”. Vincent Kirsch’s pen and ink illustrations give it a period feel – and I do love how large he drew brainy Noah’s head. The timeline at the end of the book provides ample extra detail about both American history and Noah’s life. And, the “More about Noah Webster” and Bibliography are also packed full of great information.
Suggested Ages – This is a great book for upper elementary students, particularly those studying the American Revolution. However, it certainly appeals to younger elementary students as well, who will enjoy understanding how the first American dictionary came to be.
I recently saw the wonderful documentary, Jane, and came home to re-read Jeanette Winter’s picture book, The Watcher, to my girls. Winter cleverly starts the story when little Jane Goodall is just five years old, the same age as many readers of her book. She traces her talent for observation and her interest in Africa from Goodall’s childhood through her career as a scientist. The excerpts from her journals punctuate the story and give the reader insight into what it would be like to study these wild animals. After the story, Winter provides a bit more detail about Goodall’s life including the roots of her own fascination with Jane. Winter own playful illustrations bring brightness to the story, including the sadder parts like when Jane falls ill or the chimpanzees are in danger from hunters. Her focus on Jane’s perseverance and patience helps the reader to realize just how amazing her career has been. This is just one of the many great biographical picture books that Winter has written – other favorites of mine are Wangari’s Trees of Peace and Follow the Drinking Gourd.
Suggested Ages – Young readers will enjoy imagining themselves as a curious five-year-old developing into a “watcher”. The text is fairly simple for young readers to follow as well and the illustrations can help them along. Upper grade school students can gain more information from the notes at the end.
This imagined meeting of Two Friends, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, over a cup of tea is the subject of Dean Robbins’ debut picture book. Robbins pairs details about each figure to give the story flavor – for example, at their meeting Susan B. Anthony wore “bloomers” and “Frederick wore a gentleman’s jacket, vest and tie”. He then goes on to describe Susan’s struggle to gain the vote for women, looping back to their teatime conversation and then deftly switching to describe Frederick’s story before finally circling back to how they helped each other to achieve rights for all people. Robbins punctuates the story with phrases about the work each has to do and then sweetly ends the story with, “They would get right to work. As soon as they finished their tea.” Illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko provide vivid images through collage and bold paintings that combine snippets of text and quotes with the storyline in a richly layered way. Robbins has since written two more picture book biographies that I would recommend – Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing, and Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women’s Right to Vote.
Suggested Ages – This story is written for readers ages 4-8 and has a simple enough storyline for those on the young end of that range and enough detail to engage those who are a bit older. The Author’s Note at the end of the story provides further information as well as the Bibliography that invites readers to do their own research.
I recently had the great pleasure to teach a couple of nature lessons to my girls’ first grade class – the first about seeds and the second about squirrels. So, this book was perfect. In Because of an Acorn, mother and son team Lola and Adam Schaefer tell the story of the cycle of the seed through the whimsy of the animal world. True to a cycle, the book begins and ends with the acorn, the middle part packed full of its adventures between seed and tree and seed once again. They take a complicated concept and make it lyrical and lovely for the youngest of readers. The refrain of “because of” leads us from one animal to the next, showing all of the links in this little acorn’s life. Frann Preston-Gannon’s collage-like illustrations are striking and clear, playfully hiding the next creature of the story on each page for the reader to find. The cutouts at the beginning and end of an acorn and oak leaf are fun ways to reveal parts of the cycle. The primary storyline is quite brief, almost like a little poem. But, for readers interested in learning more, they can read about oak trees, sprouts and saplings as well as acorns, of course. And, you can also read about ways to help the forest by recycling and learning more about its ecosystem.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for readers as young as pre-K who can follow the repetition and simple text. Early readers will find this a fun one to practice repeated words and learn new ones, helped along with the pictures. And, those in older elementary grades will appreciate the supplemental information at the end.
With the turn in the season to chillier weather, I crave snuggly fabrics and nubby wool – and to feel it in my hands. When I came across Amy Novesky’s Cloth Lullaby about weaver Louise Bourgeois, it appealed to this connection between nature and craft. And, I also really love neat stories about people I’ve never heard of. Louise was, “raised by a river,” begins Novesky. This sets the tone for the book, as much of it is about her relationship with her mother, who dies when she is young, leaving Louise to weave together the remaining parts of her life into a tapestry of that same river. Novesky’s use of metaphor throughout is elegant – from vivid emotions like, “the color blue pinches my heart,” to her mother who was, ”as useful as an araignee (spider)”. Isabelle Arsenault’s colored pencil and pastel illustrations are layered and threadlike, including both broad scenes and small details. The “Author’s Note” at the end of the story provides further information about her life in a more factual style, and the photographs of her and her art are a nice inclusion.
Suggested Ages: This book is appealing to readers across many grades. Readers as young as Kindergarten will enjoy the illustrations as well as the story and older grade school students, particularly those studying biography, will be engaged in the story. The additional information at the end provides avenues for further study as well.
I have been recently pondering how much offspring model their behavior on their parents. Perhaps it is because our girls are at the age where I hear phrases come out of their mouths that I can hear in my own voice, and I marvel when they ask for help completing a task and then do it themselves before I even have time to respond. Toni Buzzeo captures this in the animal world in, Just Like My Papa, where lion cub Kito watches his father as he hunts and tries to follow in his footsteps. The story reaches a sweet ending when Kito is becoming ready to hunt on his own, making his first big catch – a fly. This is a nice companion to Buzzeo’s earlier, Just Like My Mama. He makes great use of evocative sounds and call and response dialogue between Kito and his father as they echo each other’s thoughts, each at his own level. Mike Wohnoutka’s bold, expressive illustrations spread across the pages, enhancing the disparity in size between big papa and little Kito. Buzzeo’s depiction of animal relationships, both with mama and with papa, enlightens his reader’s understanding of the same emotions between parent and child.
Suggested Ages – This story is perfect for listeners as young as pre-K who will love the illustrations, simple words, and repetition in the text. They can connect with the content as they imagine being little Kito.
In a season where we are losing green for the coming of winter, it was lovely to read this celebration of nature and the sounds of spring. In Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World, Laurie Lawlor draws the reader in on the first page with her image of a young Rachel sitting among the birds – “witchity-witchity-witchity!” they called as she captured a photo of their nest filled with newly-laid eggs. The colorful illustrations that spread across both pages remind me of airy French watercolors. They help the reader to see Rachel in nature and observe things along with her. Lawlor poses many questions in her text, reminding us that Rachel was a scientist and was driven by inquiry. Her portrait of the struggle she had to succeed as an educated woman of her time is inspiring and is told in a personal way that makes it compelling to read. The Epilogue at the end provides a continuation of the story after the publication of her book and gives the reader ample extra background about her life.
Suggested Ages – This is a great biography for middle and older grade school students. It is particularly useful for students studying biography, as it follows Carson’s life closely.
It is a calm, dark night, but all is not quiet. A giant powelliphanta snail is on the prowl. Powelli-what? If you haven’t heard of these before, you can learn a great deal about them from the pages at the end of Watch Out, Snail. There, you will find a cluster of whimsically presented snippets about them at the end of the book. The facts are laid out along a snail’s trail and the map of their geographic range is patterned the same as the snail’s mantle. A second page describes more about these strange, large land snails that are native to New Zealand and Australia. The story that precedes this is playfully sneaky as is the snail. While you think that the snail is going to be the one to be eaten, in fact, “Snail’s the winner. Worm’s the dinner.” All the while, hints of other predators can be found peeking over the edges of the page – a beak here, a foot or feather there. The text is simple with the focus on observation and anticipation – eat or be eaten. Margaret Tolland’s alluring illustrations feature the glossy snail shell amidst its habitat and both its predator and prey.
This book really was a fun read and I look forward to checking out Go, Green Gecko! – another picture book by Hay and Tolland published by the Australian-based Starfish Bay Children’s Books.
Suggested Ages – This story contains multiple layers for readers as young as pre-school, who can run their fingers over the glossy snail shell, to middle grade readers who will like the amazing facts about these giant snails.