Saturday, May 18, 2019

More Picture Book Biographies

Picture book biographies are a wonderful way to introduce readers to people they may otherwise not discover, to learn about the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them. You'll notice, no doubt, that I've included a book about the creation of Central Park in this roundup. Somehow, it just seemed to belong here. These books are all excellent read alouds and are, I believe, inspiring for older readers (age 7+) who are just beginning to explore the wider world and who are also beginning to face some challenges of their own. I would recommend each one for classroom or home school libraries.
Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows,
illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Henry Holt & Company, 2019, 32 pages
Even before Raven Wilkinson, Misty Copeland, and other dancers of color, there was Janet Collins. Janet's story unfold in rhyming verse beginning with her childhood in New Orleans, where her mother made costumes to pay for her ballet lessons. Supported by her family, Janet became part of a popular trio of daredevil dancers billed as Three Shades of Brown. Later, while still in her teens, Janet would audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where her dancing skills were welcome but only if she would agree to lighten her skin. Not willing to do that, Janet eventually found a ballet class that welcomed her for who she was. With hard work and dedication, Janet became the first African American prima ballerina in 1951, dancing for the Metropolitan Opera. The rhyme, which echoes "The House that Jack Built" never loses it rhythm, seems to pare Janet Collins's accomplishments down a little too simply, but there is a detailed Author's Note that fills in the blanks. The soft, spare illustrations, created with Adobe Photoshop, also add to this biography, capturing the gentle ballet dance movements of this remarkable dancer and inspiring trailblazer. Back matter also includes resources for further exploration, and three websites relating to Janet Collins in particular and ballet in general. 

Waiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein, 
illustrated by London Ladd
Charlesbridge Publising, 2019, 32 pages
We always hear about Jackie Robinson and how he broke the color barrier in baseball playing baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But it took 12 more years, for the Boston Red Sox to finally put a black player on their team roster and that player was Elijah "Pumpsie" Green. And for the narrator of this book, Bernard, it couldn't happen soon enough. Bernard and his family are big Sox fans, but he wants to know why there are no black players on his favorite team and he knows that Pumpsie, a player in the minor leagues, is just who the Sox need. But, even as the Sox lose game after game in the summer 1959, they resist giving Pumpsie a chance. But when the Sox finally drop to last place, the decision is made to put Pumpsie into the game. Still, integrating the Sox wasn't easy. Bernard and his family had always faced prejudice and racism at the games in Fenway, and Pumpsie faces it on the field from Sox fans who want a white team only. Wittenstein does a great job of presenting Pumpsie Green's entry into the major leagues through the eyes of Bernard. His facts are accurate and the attitudes of both black and white fans are portrayed honestly. For example, Bernard and his family are enthusiastic Red Sox fans, but when he and his sister jump up and cheer for a player, they are told to "Sit down and Shut up!" When a cop comes over to see what's happening, he tells them: "You people need to learn how to behave." The first time Pumpsie takes the field at Fenway Park, he's greeted with a man shouting "Get that Negro off the field!" What a welcome! Ladd's realistic acrylic and pencil illustrations reflect the period perfectly, while capturing the enthusiasm of all fans, the feeling of pride among the black fans when they finally see a black player join the team, as well as the anger of white fans who are against integrating the Red Sox. Back matter includes an Author's Note and a list of Sources about race and baseball.

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry)
by Gary Golio, illustrated by Ed Young
Candlewick Press, 2019, 48 pages
Charlie Chaplin is such an iconic comedian of silent films, but kids today probably don't really know who he is. Which is why I was happy to see this picture book biography, introducing him to another generation. Charlie's career began on the streets of London, where he performed to earn a few pennies for food. At one point, he, his mum, and older brother Sydney landed in the poorhouse when she became sick, but they also worked and got themselves out of it. Charlie went back to entertaining, even joining a traveling theater troupe at age 9, where he quickly learned how to make people laugh. He also learned that everyone has a story, and how funny and sad, laughter and tears all go together. And these are the ideas he brought with him to America and Hollywood, were his character the Little Tramp was born in a prop room full of old dust clothes. This is a very kid friendly biography, written in clear, precise, accessible language, and accompanied by Ed Young's wonderfully striking collage and ink illustrations created using a variety of techniques. As you read, you'll notice a little silhouette of the Little Tramp on some of the pages at the bottom right hand corner. Flip the pages to see it walk Chaplin's characteristic Little Tramp walk. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in performing arts history, and/or Charlie Chaplin's life. Back matter includes an Afterword by the author, a list of Facts About Charlie Chaplin, and a list of Resources and Selected Books and Movies.

Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the solid-Body Electric Guitar
and Rocked the World
by Kim Tomsic, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Chronicle Books, 2019, 56 pages
One of my earliest memories is of my parents listening to music, and among their favorites was Les Paul. And yet, when he was young, Lester Polsfuss was told by a music teacher that he had no musical ability whatsoever. That didn't keep Lester away from music, however, not by a long shot. First, he made himself a crystal radio set out of ordinary household items to listen to music. Next, he bought himself a guitar with his paper route money, and taught himself to play, even landing a stint on the local radio station. That led to building a way to record himself, again using ordinary household items. When that worked, Lester devised a way to play guitar and harmonica at the same time. The inventions went on and on - a microphone, a guitar amplifier, and finally a solid body electric guitar. At 19, Lester shortened his name to Les Paul, formed the Les Paul Trio, and before long was playing with some of the jazz greats of the day - Louis Armstrong, Nat Kind Cole, Coleman Hawkins, even Bing Crosby. And Les Paul's popularity grew, why, he was even a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Les Paul and his inventions transformed popular music, and the most amazing fact is that he never learned to read music, playing by ear (probably thanks to that discouraging music teacher). Tomsic has written a wonderful introductory biography of this multi-talented innovative musician, focusing on his grit and perseverance to work through problems and come up with solutions. Helquist's colorful oil painted artwork successfully illustrates the points that Tomsic makes about Les Paul's life and work. I particularly liked the illustration showing how young Lester made the crystal radio set and microphone, adding a bit of STEM to this excellent biography. Back matter includes an extensive  note From the Author and a list of Works Cited.  

Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler
by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Aimée Sicuro
Harry N. Abrams, 2019, 40 pages
Brown introduces young readers to Helen Frankenthaler, who is best known for her big, bold Fields of Color paintings. Helen's love of color and freedom of expression began as a child, when she was encouraged by her parents to follow her instincts about art, even while her teachers were promoting q more realistic style of painting done within the lines. Sadly, at age 11, Helen's colorful inspiration failed her when her beloved father suddenly died, and though she kept painting, it was never the same as before since it never really expressed what she felt inside. Then, as an adult, Helen met Jackson Pollock, and she realized that if he could break the rules, so could she. But it took a trip to Nova Scotia to really free Helen's painting. And what Helen created were paintings seeped in colors and deep emotion - a technique called "soak stain" where the paint is allowed to seep into the canvas. Sicuro's watercolor illustrations are energetic and bright, and without trying to recreate the soak stain techniques, she nevertheless manages to capture the sense of Helen Frankenthaler's paintings. Back matter includes More About Helen Frankenthaler, a Timeline of her life, Author's Note, Quotes and Sources, and an extensive Select Bibliography. Also included is a Poured Paint/Soak-Stain Activity that kids can do to really understand how Helen's technique works, and the most important thing to remember for this activity - there are no rules!  

A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park
written and illustrated by Ashley Benham Yazdani
Candlewick Press, 2019, 40 pages
Yes, I've included a book about a park in the PB biography roundup. I grew up in Central Park, ice skating, picnicking, bike riding, and hanging out with friends, and it was nice to read about how it was created. As NYC grew, some people believed the need for green space had become apparent. So a design contest was held in 1857, and the winning design was one created by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted already knew every inch, every rock, and ever hillside in the area that had been set aside for the park. And I'm sorry to say that some of the land known as Seneca Village was seized from African Americans by the government using eminent domain for this project. Vaux and Olmsted were careful to create different sections of the park. There's the Lake for rowing and skating, the Ramble with its wild gardens, even a Children's District. They also made sure to include different kinds of structures, like the pagodas, band shells, and even a castle. There were 34 different bridges and archways build throughout the park. And four transverses to keep (and still keep) heavy traffic out of the park. This is a lovely homage to Central Park and the two men who designed it. Even if you don't know NYC or don't like it, there is still lots of interesting facts to culled from careful examination of each page of this book. Yazdani's colorful pencil and watercolor illustrations compliment and support the text, at times providing images to help readers understand specific ideas. Back matter includes information about both Olmstead and Vaux, as well as some interesting information bytes, including a challenge to see if readers found the 22 squirrels scattered throughout the book. There's also an Author's Note and a Bibliography.

Do you have a favorite picture book biography?

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