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In honor of Women’s History Month, coming up in March, here are eight picture-book biographies about women in the arts. See also our Five Questions interview with Dean Robbins and Susanna Chapman about The Fastest Drummer: Clap Your Hands for Viola Smith!, Guide/Reviews Database section The Arts, and our Women’s History Month tag and Women’s History Month 2024 coverage.

Rock, Rosetta, Rock! Roll, Rosetta, Roll!: Presenting Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock & Roll
by Tonya Bolden; illus. by R. Gregory Christie
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    40 pp.
2/23    9780062994387    $18.99

Rosetta Tharpe’s (1915–1973) music would influence some of the biggest stars of the twentieth century — from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin — and change the sound of American music forever. In a picture-book biography that takes Tharpe from childhood in Cotton Plant, Arkansas (“Little girl. Big guitar”), through her adult career, Bolden’s dynamic second-person text puts readers in Tharpe’s shoes. In tracing her musical successes, readers see her intermingling of musical genres (“mixing it up with Gospel’s Cousin Boogie-Woogie, Cousin Jazz, Cousin Swing, Cousin the big, bad Blues”) and with it the origin of rock and roll. Bolden describes Tharpe the performer as “bold, audacious — in a word, bodacious, whatever the song.” Christie’s acryla gouache paintings use bold contrasting colors to show Tharpe as the center of attention as well as the center of the action: singing, praying, duckwalking, and always with fingers flying on the guitar strings. He contrasts crisp angular lines (of industrial modernity — trains, spotlights, skylines) with elegant curves (of the guitar’s body, of human figures). A detailed timeline, a lengthy author’s note, and brief source notes round out this impressive offering about an often-overlooked figure in American music. Pair with Barlow’s Little Rosetta and Her Talking Guitar (rev. 1/23). ERIC CARPENTER

Song After Song: The Musical Life of Julie Andrews
by Julie Hedlund; illus. by Ilaria Urbinati
Primary   Little Bee    40 pp.
9/23    9781499813791    $18.99

“Julia Elizabeth Wells was born into a melody — her childhood attuned to the timbre of the tiny English village where she heard music in the rhythm of the river, in the whistle of the wind, in the symphony of songbirds.” This lyrical picture-book biography focuses on the challenges and successes of Andrews’s early life. When her concert-pianist mother remarried and moved to London during WWII, Julie was summoned to join her and had a difficult time adjusting­ to life in a large city under constant threat of bombs. But her stepfather, also a musician, discovered her gift of a voice, paid for singing lessons, and promoted her career. Julie became successful so quickly that she performed for the queen while still a child. The book concludes with a brief summary of Andrews’s accomplishments­ as an actor and author of children’s books; the failed throat surgery that forced her to stop singing is explained in the appended author’s note. Soft-hued illustrations ranging from a series of small vignettes to double-page spreads reveal setting, action, emotion, and personality, complementing the alliterative text, which is full of musical references. The case cover offers a surprise: an illustration of young Julie by the river, with Mary Poppins reflected in the water. Back matter includes a timeline (but no source notes). CHRISTINA DORR

What Music!: The Fifty-Year Friendship Between Beethoven and Nannette Streicher, Who Built His Pianos
by Laurie Lawlor; illus. by Becca Stadtlander
Primary, Intermediate    Holiday    40 pp.
10/23    9780823451432    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823457397    $11.99

Streicher and Beethoven met as teenagers when he visited her father, Johann Andreas Stein, “the celebrated piano innovator.” Their friendship endured as Streicher would go on to create the unique pianos that showcased Beethoven’s talents, instruments that were “as expressive as a human voice and as varied in tone and timbre as an entire orchestra combined.” Like arrangers orchestrating a duet, Lawlor and Stadtlander (Fearless World Traveler, rev. 9/21) intertwine the two biographies, first by presenting a segment of one person’s life, then the corresponding time period of the other’s, and finally the intersection of the two. The chronological pieces, on such topics as childhood, early recognition of their respective talents, and continuing successes and failures, culminate in the initial performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy,” and the book concludes with each person’s later experiences and their deaths. This pattern allows readers to compare and contrast the two lives, from Beethoven’s difficult childhood with a sick mother and abusive father to Streicher’s unique upbringing with a father who encouraged her formal education but also passed on the details of piano production (which allowed her, uncharacteristically for the times, to operate her own business). Stadtlander’s gouache and pencil illustrations not only capture the era but also use setting to accentuate character traits; those segments featuring Streicher depict calm routines, while Beethoven’s volatile performances show bright colors and objects visually exploding from his pianos. Appended with informative notes, a bibliography, and documentation. BETTY CARTER

One of a Kind: The Life of Sydney Taylor
by Richard Michelson; illus. by Sarah Green
Primary    Calkins/Astra    40 pp.
2/24    9781635925319    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781635925494    $11.99

Sydney Taylor (1904–1978), born Sarah Brenner, was the author of the All-of-a-Kind Family novels, known as the first Jewish children’s books to be popular with a mainstream audience. Here, Michelson (a recipient of Taylor’s eponymous award for As Good as Anybody and The Language of Angels) tells a portion of her story in a lighthearted picture-book biography. Much of the book focuses on the Lower East Side childhood on which Taylor’s novels were based; it also touches on her socialist activism, her work as a dancer, and her marriage to Ralph Taylor. An emphasis throughout on her interest in books and writing culminates in the “happily ever after ending” of her first book’s publication. The third-person present-tense narration focuses tightly on Taylor’s internal life and, along with occasional dialogue, lends an immediate feel; an appended note acknowledges that much of that dialogue is invented, “but the thoughts, if not the exact words, are all taken from Syd’s writings or [her daughter] Jo’s recollections.” Green’s cool-hued digital gouache illustrations alternate straightforward scenes and spreads filled with vignettes highlighting aspects of Taylor’s life. This introduction, mostly cheerful in focus and tone, provides useful context for her novels (Cummins and Dunietz’s adult biography From Sarah to Sydney, rev. 7/21, paints a more complete picture). Back matter gives brief additional information about Taylor and her husband and daughter as well as a bibliography. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Little Books of the Little Brontës
by Sara O’Leary; illus. by Briony May Smith
Primary    Tundra    40 pp.
10/23    9780735263697    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780735263703    $10.99

From its first words and images, this book about the young Brontës invites readers into the cozy home and companionship of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. It patently conveys the pleasure both author and illustrator take in these children and their prodigious imaginations as storytellers and bookmakers. In neat, compact sentences — impressively so given the information conveyed — O’Leary tells of the Brontës’ home and pastimes, and of the flowering of their little books of fantasy stories inspired by the gift of wooden toy soldiers. At the same time, Smith’s art offers pictures in which to lose oneself, ranging from the edgeless, vast slopes of the moors to detailed interiors seen through windows and panels. The effect is that of looking into a dollhouse, complete with a bird’s-eye view of a table set with food and crockery, an effect exceptionally expressive of the subject matter. O’Leary leaps briefly to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as successful adult novelists, but she returns to their childhood almost at once; like them, you too could make a little book with a story, she tells us, and here is how to do it. A joyous, beguiling introduction to these Victorian writers. Appended with an author’s note and a timeline, in addition to “How to Make Your Own Little Book.” DEIRDRE F. BAKER

Gifts from Georgia’s Garden: How Georgia O’Keeffe Nourished Her Art
by Lisa Robinson; illus. by Hadley Hooper
Primary    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.
3/24    9780823452668    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823457557    $11.99

Spare, poetic text and illustrations rich in color and detail provide a unique insight into a well-known artist. Beginning in well-trodden territory with descriptions of O’Keeffe’s (1887–1986) flower paintings, Robinson quickly directs the story to the artist’s later life and the ways that not only the natural landscape of New Mexico but also the nourishing acts of tending a garden and feeding friends inspired her art. The text is lean but full of evocative details. Hooper’s illustrations focus on the things O’Keeffe loved — landscapes and natural materials take precedence over people, who are often sketched in black and white over the riot of color of a table of food or a garden full of flowers. One memorable page-turn first shows a young Georgia surrounded by the kinds of small natural objects that intrigued her; on the following spread, many of the same objects are shown much larger and more painterly, leaping out of an older O’Keeffe’s head. Back matter includes brief biographical information, more details about some of her sustainable gardening techniques, a list of sources, and O’Keeffe’s recipe for pecan butterball cookies. LAURA KOENIG

A Tulip in Winter: A Story About Maud Lewis
by Kathy Stinson; illus. by Lauren Soloy
Primary    Greystone Kids    40 pp.
3/23    9781771649513    $18.95

Maud Lewis (1903–1970) was a Nova Scotian folk artist who lived with rheumatoid arthritis. Despite physical and economic challenges, she never let her passion for art fade away. As a child, when her hands become too bent and stiff to play the piano, she starts painting. When her parents die and her brother sells the house, Maud finds a job as fish peddler Everett Lewis’s live-in housekeeper (and eventually marries him, though this isn’t mentioned in the book). There’s not much money for paint, but Maud makes the best of what she has, adding “touches of colour” to Everett’s “dull little house,” painting birds and butterflies on the doors and flowers on the windows. Eventually she is able to sell her beautiful paintings and gain recognition for her creations. Stinson celebrates not only Lewis’s artistic achievements but also her resilient spirit in the face of poverty and hardship. Soloy’s illustrations capture the essence of Lewis’s unique artistic style with a cheery palette that reflects the text’s upbeat tone. A touching and uplifting tribute, this book emphasizes the importance of finding beauty in the everyday and persevering through life’s challenges. WEILEEN WANG

The Rock in My Throat
by Kao Kalia Yang; illus. by Jiemei Lin
Primary    Carolrhoda    32 pp.
3/24    9781728445687    $18.99

Tenderly told in first person, Yang’s lyrical autobiographical picture book depicts her childhood struggle with selective mutism. Her descriptions of how selective mutism presents at school are vivid and authentic, as when she relates the distressing experience of being called to speak during attendance: “Trying to get the air out of my mouth feels like I’m pushing my heart up into my throat.” Readers learn that her discomfort with speaking stems from alienating experiences witnessing the impatience of native English speakers when her immigrant Hmong mother tries to communicate. In contrast, young Kalia is comfortable speaking Hmong with her family at home, where “everyone speaks normally to everyone else. It is a song, uninterrupted, and it flows and flows.” Classmates, portrayed with various skin tones, are shown engaged in conversation or play while Kalia remains alone, immersed in examining natural objects such as a feather or pebble. Lin’s earth tones and muted colors reflect Kalia’s affinity with the natural world. Nods to Hmong culture are captured through Lin’s illustrations of clothing, meals, and artwork adorning the household. The story ends with a hopeful encounter with a potential friend. In the author’s note, Yang provides a pronunciation guide and translations and shares her journey to finding her voice through writing. KRISTINE TECHAVANICH

From the February 2024 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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