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Recommended Picture Books: Picture Book Biographies

barton_whooshBarton, Chris  Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Charlesbridge

Illustrated by Don Tate. Barton follows African American inventor Johnson, from his childhood tinkering through winning first place at a 1968 science fair, attending Tuskegee Institute, engineering for NASA, and developing a super-blast water gun. Barton describes Johnson’s ups and downs before he finally sold his Super Soaker to a toy company, but the straightforward text has a generally upbeat, you-can-do-it attitude. Clear digital illustrations with time-period-appropriate details help situate readers.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Alabama; Inventions and inventors; African Americans; Johnson, Lonnie; Engineering

burleigh_solving the puzzle under the seaBurleigh, Robert  Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Simon/Wiseman

Illustrated by Raúl Colón. This book spotlights groundbreaking scientist Marie Tharp, the oceanographic cartographer whose mapping of the Atlantic seafloor yielded key evidence confirming the theory of continental drift. Tharp holds the narrative reins here, and her voice, as imagined by Burleigh, generally rings true. Colón’s illustrations, a textured wash of sea- and earth tones, are thoughtful and attractive and accurately reflect the time period. Websites. Bib., glos.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Tharp, Marie; Women—Scientists; Oceans; Maps; Women—Biographies; Scientists; Oceanography

gandhi_be the changeGandhi, Arun and Hegedus, Bethany  Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story
Gr. K–3     48 pp.     Atheneum

Illustrated by Evan Turk. After young Arun Gandhi tosses a pencil nub away in rebellion, he comes to understand the ways in which he can “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Turk’s artwork is stunning in color and composition, providing visual clarity to heady concepts. From the creators of Grandfather Gandhi, another valuable title for showing the human side of the seminal figure that is Gandhi.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Family—Grandfathers; Gandhi, Mahatma; India; Nonviolence; Statesmen; Pacifists

macy_miss mary reportingMacy, Sue  Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Simon/Wiseman

Illustrated by C. F. Payne. Pioneering journalist Mary Garber “got her big break” during WWII, running the sports page while the (male) sportswriters were fighting in the war. For much of the next six decades, she worked in sports reporting, blazing trails for female journalists. Macy’s succinct text is informative and engaging; her regard for her subject, obvious. Payne’s soft, sepia-toned mixed-media illustrations provide the perfect touch of nostalgia. Reading list, timeline, websites.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Women—Journalists; Women—Biographies; Sports; Journalism

nelson_book itchNelson, Vaunda Micheaux  The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore
Gr. K–3     32 pp.     Carolrhoda

Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Nelson presents a picture-book adaptation of her No Crystal Stair source material, narrated by young Lewis, son of the National Memorial African Bookstore proprietor Lewis Michaux. Studded with Michaux’s aphorisms (“Don’t get took! Read a book!”), the book conveys the store’s vibrancy during the tumultuous 1960s. Christie, whose black-and-white drawings illustrate No Crystal Stair, here employs full pages drenched with expressionistic color. Bib.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Michaux, Lewis H.; African Americans; Books and reading; Stores; Harlem (New York, NY); Family—Father and son

novesky_cloth lullabyNovesky, Amy  Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Abrams

Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Artist Bourgeois, who became most famous for her giant sculptures of spiders, also worked with textiles, and it’s at her family’s tapestry-restoration workshop in France, along a river “that wove like a wool thread through everything,” that the book begins. Novesky sews together the many themes of Bourgeois’s art and life into a spare yet lilting narrative. Arsenault’s mixed-media illustrations create stylistically and compositionally varied images.
Subjects: Visual Arts; Bourgeois, Louise; Artists; Biographies; Women—Biographies; Women—Artists; Sculpture

rappaport_fredericks-journeyRappaport, Doreen  Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass
Gr. K–3     48 pp.      Disney/Jump

Illustrated by London Ladd. There are many longer books that detail the events of Douglass’s life, but this one, in picture-book form, manages to synthesize those details just as well as a longer work might. This is due to Rappaport’s carefully chosen primary-source quotations and Ladd’s paintings, which alternate between moments of violence and times of reflection — all resulting in a portrait that is fiery yet dignified. Author’s and illustrator’s notes are appended. Reading list, timeline, websites. Bib.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Douglass, Frederick; African Americans; Abolitionists; Slavery

rockliff_anything-but-ordinary-addieRockliff, Mara  Anything but Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic
Gr. K–3     48 pp.     Candlewick

Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Bold and spunky, Addie was always eager to “ASTONISH,” “SHOCK,” and “DAZZLE.” Addie met magician Alexander Herrmann; they married; she became his assistant; and, after his death, Addie continued performing into the early twentieth century. Bruno’s pencil and digital illustrations are rich, dramatic, and theatrically staged. This memorable and, yes, magical picture-book biography will captivate audiences, young and old. Further information appended.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Behavior—Individuality; Magicians; Women—Biographies; England; Gender roles; Herrmann, Adelaide; Women—Magicians

stone_housethatjanebuiltStone, Tanya Lee  The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams
Gr. K–3     32 pp.     Holt/Ottaviano

Illustrated by Kathryn Brown. Stone bypasses her subject’s many accolades to show her in a strictly human light. At age six, Addams realized that her privilege was not universal. The adult Addams started a settlement house in 1889 to help Chicago’s vast immigrant population; Hull House would become a template for the modern community center. Addams’s matter-of-fact noblesse oblige is captured in handsome watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations. Bib.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Social reformers; Women—Social reformers; Social workers; Hull House (Chicago, IL); Addams, Jane; Women—Biographies; Chicago (IL); Women—Social workers

tate_poetTate, Don  Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Peachtree

George Moses Horton, who taught himself to read and compose poetry, lived as a slave in North Carolina until he was sixty-six years old. Tate omits none of Horton’s story’s sadness but still makes it accessible to young readers and listeners. Gouache, ink, and pencil illustrations are as straightforward as the text but pack the appropriate emotional punch. Bib.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Horton, George Moses; Poets; Poetry; African Americans; Slavery

vernick_kid from diamond streetVernick, Audrey  The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Clarion

Illustrated by Steven Salerno. In the 1920s, Houghton (“The Kid”) played starting shortstop for the all-women’s Philadelphia Bobbies — at ten years old. Vernick’s conversational text describes the team barnstorming through the Northwest U.S., playing baseball in Japan, and learning about Japanese culture. Salerno’s appealing charcoal, ink, and gouache illustrations evoke a bygone era of baseball with smudgy-looking uniforms, sepia tones, and double-page spreads for a touch of ballpark grandeur.
Subjects: Sports; Women—Biographies; Women—Athletes; Sports—Baseball; Houghton, Edith; Biographies

winter_you never heard of casey stengelWinter, Jonah  You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?!
Gr. K–3     40 pp.     Random/Schwartz & Wade

Illustrated by Barry Blitt. Winter affectionately focuses on kooky Yankees manager Stengel, a mediocre player in his day (although he did best Babe Ruth in the 1923 World Series). Winter uses an old-timer’s storytelling style, playing up Stengel’s wackiness. Blitt’s illustrations use caricature and perspective to reflect Stengel’s larger-than-life persona. An author’s note is appended; the lack of sources and further reading is the only weak spot. Glos.
Subjects: Sports; Sports—Baseball; Stengel, Casey; Biographies

From the December 2016 issue of What Makes a Good…?: “What Makes a Good Picture Book?”

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