With national poetry month coming up in April, I have been excited to read poetry again and to think about the process of writing poetry. When I came across Jen Bryant’s book A River of Words about William Carlos Williams, it was a perfect fit for this exploration. I have always loved Wiliams’s poetry for its simplicity and for his courage to break the mold of patterned, rhyming poems. His story is fun to share with children who, while they love rhyme, are sometimes stymied by creating poems with rhythm and rhyme. A River of Words is another collaboration between Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet whose interplay between illustration and text is so tight that it is hard to believe they came from two separate people. Quotes from Williams’s writings are interspersed with the story and are often part of the illustrations. His poetry also adorns the inner and outer covers of the book for those eager to read more. Bryant hooks her young readers in by starting with Williams’s life as a boy and tracing his interest in nature and writing from a young age. She writes, “Like the water that sometimes ran slow, smooth, and steady, and other times came rushing in a hurried flood, Willie’s lines flowed across the page.” How lovely! Bryant also makes a point of how Willie writes in “a new way,” letting “each poem find its own special shape on the page.” That’s a great freeing example for children to follow in their writing. Like the interspersing of his words and the text of the story, the timelines in the end pages of the book draw parallels between the events of Williams’s life and his publications as well as world events. This is a wonderful reference for students studying biography and history. Bryant and Sweet’s notes at the end provide further insight into their process, which is helpful for students writing their own stories. The pair’s other books, A Splash of Red about artist Horace Pippin, and The Right Word about Roget’s Thesaurus are equally delightful and worth seeking out.
Suggested Ages: This book is well suited to children in the middle Elementary grades that are studying biography and history. They will appreciate the level of detail as well as the personal story of Williams and can draw additional information from the end pages for further research.
It just keeps snowing here in Maine, so I figured I might as well take some time to find out more about snow! Mark Cassino and Jon Nelson’s book, The Story of Snow, is a perfect introduction to the science of snow. They strike that delicate balance between being scientifically accurate, but not too detailed. While I knew the old adage about no two snowflakes being alike, I didn’t know the extent of the variety of flakes or even that each flake is made up of many crystals. From stars to plates to columns, the intricacy is astonishing. Cassino took the photographs and Jon Nelson is a crystal-studying Ph.D. physicist who provided the scientific expertise. Nora Aoyagi’s detailed drawings are full of sparkle and light. I used this book recently in a lesson I taught for my girls’ first grade class on patterns and it was the perfect primer to get them started in creating their own snowflakes both on paper and with their classmates. The simple primary phrase of each page leads the reader along from, “Snow begins with a speck,” to “6 is the magic number for snow crystals.” Beneath each of these lines is a simplified explanation. Then, next to the photographs and detailed drawings you can go learn even more. I always appreciate a book with an activity included, and the “How to Catch Your Own Snow Crystals” pages at the end are perfect. They take a common lesson and turn it into a true investigation.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for grade school students. The younger readers will enjoy the primary text and older readers can learn more from the detailed blurbs. There is much to be explored further that is lightly introduced in this book and would satisfy older students.
The title of this story sounds like many of our afternoons. Even if it is just a small diversion on the walk home from the bus stop, my girls are always eager to get Out of School and Into Nature. And, while I feel like I’m familiar with many figures in the environmental world and particularly those involved, I had never heard of Anna Comstock, one of the first people to make the case for kids getting outside to learn. In yet another of her wonderful picture book biographies, Suzanne Slade tells the story of Anna Comstock in a way that is both simple enough for young readers but with enough detail to be compelling. She intersperses quotes from Anna with the storyline, making her voice come alive. Jessica Lanan’s naturalistic illustrations beautifully mirror the drawings that Anna did and show us the detail that she observed and captivated her – “caterpillars changing into graceful butterflies” and “water freezing into six-sided snowflakes”. Kids will love reading about how she shared her passion by encouraging schools to take students outside to learn. The “More About Anna” section tells her story in more detail and shows actual engravings she did of butterflies.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for elementary students who will be engaged by the illustrations as well as her curiosity as a child. They will also be inspired by a story that has impacted the way schools have changed as a result of her efforts. Older students studying biography can delve in further with the end section.
In this ethereal picture book, Michelle Cuevas paints a portrait of a lonely figure whose job it is to deliver the messages found in bottles tossed into the sea. What child hasn’t thought about the magic of messages in a bottle? The Uncorker is dedicated to his task, but wishes that someday someone might send him a message. But he thinks that this is “about as likely as finding a mermaid’s toenail on the beach” – what a great phrase. Cuevas never gives “The Uncorker” a name, which is a clever way of making his loneliness even more poignant. Erin Stead’s illustrations are misty and magical and I love the circular format of several of them. It makes the reader feel as if he or she is peering into the top of a bottle. When The Uncorker finds himself with an undeliverable invitation to a party that then leads him to an unexpected gathering of friends, his heart is “like a glass vessel filled to the brim.” Even so, he assumes the invitation was not for him and continues on his quest to find its proper recipient. This is such a sweet story of a solitary but earnest soul who finds friendship. You can look forward to a new book by Cuevas set to come out this spring: The Town of Turtle, and also check out another of her picture books, Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow.
Suggested Ages: This is a lyrical storybook aimed at young children in early elementary grades. They will be captivated by the art, the fresh descriptions, and the emotionally driven story.
While many of the biographies I’ve been reading lately have been about people I hadn’t heard of, Louis Braille was already a familiar name. But, I had no idea that he didn’t start his life blind. This is just one of the many things I didn’t know about him that I learned Jen Bryant’s book Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. She tells his story in a playful way using dialogue with many people important to young Louis. The story is also told in first person, which helps the reader to feel as he felt as a little boy. The play of the senses between the words and illustrations is clever.
Boris Kulikov’s illustrations alternate between dark and light as Louis loses his sight and then gains some kind of new understanding through his other senses, and then becomes frustrated again. One can imagine lights going on and off in Louis’s head. In the text, Bryant describes the sounds Louis hears as he learns to find his way around without sight. Bryant follows Louis’s determination to become “just like my papa” from the beginning when an accident with his father’s leatherworking tools leads to his blindness to the end when he uses a similar tool to punch braille and feels like he has finally achieved his desire. The inclusion of the braille alphabet and pronunciation guide at the beginning of the story helps to set the tone for the story. And, the author’s note at the end provides great context for his invention and also points out that Louis Braille was a rare child inventor, coming up with a solution to his frustration at such a young age. The lengthy Q&A section at the end is also packed full of interesting tidbits. And, if there isn’t enough there, the bibliography provides further references. Bryant’s other books A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus are also wonderful picture book biographies worth looking up.
Suggested Ages: This book is geared towards students in grades 1-4. But, the additional information at the end gives it plenty of meat for older readers interested in learning more.
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.