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The Horn Book reviews the Big Words Biographies

martin's big wordsstar2 Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Bryan Collier
Primary     Jump at the Sun/Hyperion    40 pp.
9/01     0-7868-0714-8     $15.99
Library ed. 0-7868-2591-X     $16.49

This is one book you can judge by its cover. The space on the front jacket is entirely filled with a large, inviting portrait of a smiling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the usual publication data (title, author, illustrator) are printed on the back. Inside, the text is a mix of Rappaport’s finely honed biographical narrative and appropriate quotes from King himself, emphasizing the concept that from his youth Martin had sought to inspire others with his words, as he had heard his father do. The essential and pivotal events of King’s life, including the early days of the civil rights movement, the march on Washington, and King’s assassination, are presented in a straightforward yet moving style. The facts are extended by Bryan Collier’s breathtaking collage illustrations, which dazzle, challenge, and inspire with their repletion of motifs (such as stained-glass windows) and the mixture of symbols and realism (as in the depiction of black Americans carrying a flag as they march for freedom). This exemplary biography of one of the great leaders of the twentieth century will remind another generation of the grandeur of his legacy. With informative forewords from author and illustrator, a chronology, and a selective listing of further readings and websites. MARY M. BURNS

reviewed in the January/February 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


rappaport_john's secret dreamsJohn’s Secret Dreams: The Life of John Lennon
by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Bryan Collier
Primary, Intermediate     Hyperion     48 pp.
10/04      0-7868-0817-9     $16.99     g

Like Martin’s Big Words (rev. 1/02) by the same duo, this ambitious picture book reveals plenty of research and an affinity for the subject. Formatted in brief lines, the text describes pivotal moments in Lennon’s life, interspersing lines from his songs in larger colored type. Collier’s collage art has more motion this time, with busier backgrounds, and he adds some psychedelic sixties colors to the predominant brown. But the most distinguishing graphic feature is a recurring motif of floating circles: when the Beatles achieve their first success, the circles become brightly labeled black LPs; when John feels suffocated by fame and experiments with drugs, they become drifting holes and disks containing fragments of his face. Song lyrics placed on top of Collier’s illustrations sometimes add to the art’s effect and sometimes confuse and dilute the power of his images. Likewise, the lyrics interspersed between the lines of Rappaport’s narrative usually add to the text’s effectiveness, but some halt the read-aloud flow and cause confusion, particularly when they run the risk of blending into the background color. For maximum enjoyment, put on a Beatles album, curl up with the book, and just Let It Be. Appended with a list of important dates, a selected discography, and selected research sources. LOLLY ROBINSON

reviewed in the September/October 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


rappaport_abe's honest wordsAbe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln
by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Kadir Nelson
Intermediate     Hyperion     48 pp.
11/08     978-1-4231-0408-7     $16.99

With language as lean as our sixteenth president, Rappaport brings to light the major influences on and turning points in Lincoln’s life. Excerpts from Lincoln’s own speeches (although the sources are not uniformly acknowledged) ground these highlights — the death of his mother, his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, his fight against slavery, and his two inaugurations. Big events, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, receive eloquent quotes (“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free . . .”). But other aspects of Lincoln’s life, such as his constant reading (“He had just a mite of schooling, yet he loved words the way his papa, a master storyteller, did”), are punctuated with plainer speech (“The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read”). Some of Nelson’s handsome portraits glow with background light and luminous skin tones, evoking the remote majesty of the statue at the Lincoln Memorial. At other times, he lets Lincoln walk down those stairs and portrays an unassuming man reading under a tree or cajoling political leaders with a story or two. An appended timeline fills in some facts of Lincoln’s biography; recommended readings, a bibliography, and the text of the Gettysburg Address complete the book. BETTY CARTER

reviewed in the November/December 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


rappaport_eleanor quiet no moreEleanor, Quiet No More
Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Gary Kelley
Primary, Intermediate     Hyperion     40 pp.
2/09     978-0-7868-5141-6     $16.99      g

Unlike the subjects of Rappaport’s earlier “words” biographies such as Martin’s Big Words (rev. 11/08) and Abe’s Honest Words (rev. 1/02), Eleanor Roosevelt may not be immediately familiar to potential readers. Here, Eleanor’s words define her growth from an insecure, unloved child (“I wanted to sink through the floor in shame”) to a reluctant but forceful political voice (“You must do the things you cannot do”) to respected citizen of the world (“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”). Rappaport’s text outlines Eleanor’s developing concern for others and lessening concern for self, epitomized in a triple-frame illustration of Eleanor addressing an audience that convincingly conveys her metamorphosis and increasing confidence. Appended with a timeline of important events in Eleanor’s life, notes from both author and illustrator, a selected bibliography, and recommended readings and Internet sites. BETTY CARTER

reviewed in the March/April 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


rappaport_jack's path of courageJack’s Path of Courage: The Life of John F. Kennedy
by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Matt Tavares
Primary, Intermediate     Disney-Hyperion     48 pp.
10/10     978-1-4231-2272-2     $17.99

Looking tan, healthy, and vibrant, a smiling Jack Kennedy greets young readers on the jacket of Rappaport’s latest picture-book biography. Following a familiar pattern, she intersperses direct quotes from her subject with basic biographical information, this time stressing Kennedy’s bravery and devotion to duty. Readers see JFK’s competitive drive both in sports and in his defiance of Khrushchev; his intellectual side as a reader and author; his courage during World War II; and his dedication to service, as a “fill-in” for his dead brother Joe’s political plans and as founder of the Peace Corps. Still, Rappaport refuses to turn this life into a hagiography, citing the disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis and pointing out Kennedy’s slow progress toward civil rights for African Americans. Tavares’s watercolor and pencil illustrations capture a skinny kid competing in touch football, an unsure author autographing Why England Slept, a shy campaigner running for Congress, and a confident leader delivering his first inaugural address. A soft palette depicts idyllic settings (such as a Cape Cod beach) or suggests a bygone era faded by time, while more dramatic incidents such as the sinking of PT 109 and the moon landing are shown in bright, bold colors. Appended with author and illustrator notes, a bibliography, further readings, and a timeline. BETTY CARTER

reviewed in the November/December 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


rappaport_helen's big world_276x300star2 Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller
by Doreen Rappaport; illus. by Matt Tavares
Primary, Intermediate     Disney-Hyperion     48 pp.
10/12     978-0-7868-0890-8     $17.99     g

Annie and Helen
by Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by Raul Colón
Primary, Intermediate    Schwartz & Wade/Random    48 pp.
9/12     978-0-375-85706-5     $17.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-95706-2     $20.99

Though different in scope, these picture book biographies both give powerful introductory looks at the huge challenges Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, faced and surmounted. Beginning with an excerpt from one of Annie’s letters to a former teacher about first meeting Helen, Annie and Helen provides a more detailed look at Helen and her teacher’s early years together. The text considers Annie’s point of view as much as Helen’s, and Annie’s strength of character is highlighted. Peppered with excerpts from Annie’s letters, the book comes full circle by concluding with the first letter Helen writes home on her own. Meanwhile, Helen’s Big World covers the whole span of Helen’s life from birth through her many years with Annie and after. Rappaport characteristically uses quotes to extend and heighten the emotion. A timeline at the end helps put important dates in perspective. Though this book focuses more on Helen than on Annie, readers get a more acute awareness of how much Annie sacrificed for Helen: “Teacher read many books to me. In spite of repeated warnings from oculists, she has always abused her eyes for my sake.” In contrast to Colón’s rather too-sedate line and watercolor pictures for Annie and Helen, Tavares’s illustrations (ink, watercolor, and gouache) for Helen’s Big World are, per the title, big and bold and often in intense close-up. Stirring and awe-inspiring, both books Annie are appended with acknowledgments and further reading and include a chart of the finger alphabet Annie used. In addition, Annie and Helen’s endpapers provide real photographs, and the back cover has a raised Braille alphabet; the cover of Helen’s Big World includes the title in Braille. JULIE ROACH

reviewed in the September/October 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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