Fascinating figures

These five absorbing YA biographies introduce readers to an iconic Olympics activist; a groundbreaking civil rights activist; a German Jewish artist; a suspected Lincoln assassination conspirator — and present well-known lives (e.g., Einstein’s) in eye-catching ways.

Hanged!: Mary Surratt & the Plot to Assassinate Abraham Lincoln
by Sarah Miller
Middle School, High School    Random House Studio/Random    352 pp.    g
11/22    978-0-593-18156-0    $18.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-18157-7    $21.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-18158-4    $11.99

On April 14, 1865, just days after the conclusion of the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth shot (and killed) President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Booth would die more than two weeks later during the attempt to apprehend him, and attention shifted onto his accomplices and co-conspirators. Caught up in the plot was the widow Mary Surratt, who ran a Washington, DC, boardinghouse that Booth and other conspirators (including Surratt’s son) frequented. Surratt’s guilt by association and the hearsay surrounding her role in the plot were enough to condemn her to the gallows after one of the most unusual trials in American history. Miller (The Borden Murders, rev. 1/16) finds the unlikeliest of protagonists in Surratt. Using court transcripts and contemporaneous secondary sources, Miller pieces together information surrounding Surratt, her family, and her boardinghouse guests during and after the assassination of the sixteenth president. Extensively researched, the narrative is carefully organized to give readers the bearings necessary to follow specifics of the many witnesses and their multiple versions of events. The story lays bare the shocking disregard for judicial normalcy as Surratt and her co-defendants were tried in a peacetime military court while simultaneously tried by the newspapers of the day. True-crime fans will be enthralled by this compelling nineteenth-century case and the woman at its emotional center. Appended with an author’s note, list of sources, and an index (unseen). ERIC CARPENTER

by Jim Ottaviani; illus. by Jerel Dye; color by Alison Acton
High School    First Second    304 pp.    g
11/22    978-1-62672-876-9    $32.99

This thoroughly researched comic-format account of the world’s most well-known physicist is described by its author as “not so much a biography of Albert Einstein as it is a story about him.” Storytelling liberties such as a nonlinear narrative, invented dialogue, fourth wall–breaking asides (identified by square word balloons), and scenes of a teenage Einstein visualizing his quintessential white-haired self as running along a beam of light are engagingly theatrical. Complicated scientific concepts, including relativity and space time, are imaginatively portrayed at length through a blend of words and pictures. Einstein’s multifaceted personal life is equally examined — including his involvement in geopolitics, experiences of antisemitic attacks, and numerous affairs. Relationships and rivalries with a large cast of world-renowned scientists, from Planck to Curie to Bohr, serve as a constant through line, underscoring the collaborative and competitive nature of early-twentieth-century scientific discourse. Strong cartooning across consistent three-tier page layouts is clear and effective. The hand-inked illustrations are rendered in an undulating black line and muted color palette, punctuated by ethereal blue thought bubbles and visual motifs representing Einstein’s inner life. This nuanced portrayal of the individual behind many of the last century’s greatest discoveries is complex and confounding, much like the man himself. Back matter includes a timeline and whimsical coda regarding Einstein’s death. PATRICK GALL

Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice
by Tommie Smith and Derrick Barnes; illus. by Dawud Anyabwile
Middle School    Norton    208 pp.    g
9/22    978-1-324-00390-8    $22.95
Paper ed.  978-1-324-05215-9    $17.95

Smith’s graphic memoir (co-authored with multi-awardee Barnes) provides context for the iconic 1968 image of two Black Olympians, gold medalist Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, standing on the medal podium, heads bowed and fists raised. Smith’s ­sharecropper parents had moved the family from Texas to California’s Central Valley as part of the Great Migration’s second wave when he was a child. It was here that sixth grader Tommie beat his nimble-footed older sister Sally (along with the fastest boy in the seventh grade) in a race that “changed everything.” His athletic talents earned him a scholarship to San Jose State, where he arrived “oblivious to the extent” of the civil rights movement. But as a Black student on an overwhelmingly white campus during the tumultuous 1960s, Smith’s growing awareness of — and involvement in — the fight for racial equality led him to speak out. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Smith won gold in the 200 meters; along with Carlos, he staged a protest whose reverberations are still felt today. Anyabwile conveys great emotion in his fluid black-and-white art, which pairs well with the conversational first-person text. The climactic race acts as a narrative through line alongside Smith’s life story. The book closes by making direct connections between Smith’s actions and modern-day protests by athletes (such as Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick), with a final shot of a triumphant older Smith, standing under an illuminated set of Olympic rings, with fist defiantly raised. “I hold no regrets…if I could hoist that fist up to the heavens one more time…I’d do it again.” SAM BLOOM

Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist
by Rosita Stevens-Holsey and Terry Catasús Jennings
High School    Yellow Jacket    288 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-4998-1251-0    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4998-1252-7    $9.99

The remarkable life of Black activist, attorney, and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray (1910–1985) is presented in an engaging, extensively documented nonfiction account in verse. Drawing heavily on Murray’s autobiography, poems, and other writings, the book spans her entire life and identifies her influences as she became determined, from a young age in Jim Crow North Carolina, to learn and help others appreciate the true history of her people. She endured great hardships in order to graduate from Hunter College, but her efforts to get ahead were thwarted by the Great Depression. She began a lifelong passion for writing to newspapers and public figures about social issues, which she called “confrontation by typewriter,” and was very successful at making those messages heard by people in power, including President Roosevelt. Later, at Howard University Law School, Murray was a strong proponent of overturning Plessy v. Ferguson because “separate could never be equal.” In the later chapters, the authors acknowledge the limitations of language employed at the time, speculating that today “transgender / is possibly / what Pauli would call herself…Pauli’s pronouns may have been / they/them/their.” This is a compelling biography of an “unsung force” — an inspiring and transformative figure who broke barriers pivotal to both the civil rights and women’s movements. Appended with photographs, authors’ notes, a timeline, source notes, and a bibliography. LUANN TOTH

It’s My Whole Life: Charlotte Salomon: An Artist in Hiding During World War II
by Susan Wider
High School    Norton    160 pp.    g
8/22    978-1-324-01545-1    $19.95

This well-researched biography of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) constructs many of its episodes around her autobiographical paintings, allowing not only for analysis of her art but also for an intimate focus on particular moments in her life. That life was a difficult and complicated one, and Wider is frank about Salomon’s intense relationships and obsession with her family’s history of suicide, as well as her alleged poisoning of her grandfather (the book is inconclusive as to her motivations: assisted suicide, or escape from his abuse?). The specter of the Holocaust looms large over Salomon’s story: she created her Life? or Theater? series of paintings while in hiding, and was eventually captured and killed in the gas chamber. Two closing chapters focus on her legacy. Black-and-white photos are interspersed throughout the narrative, as are reproductions of Salomon’s colorful and often melancholic paintings. Back matter includes a family tree, a map, a timeline, source notes, a bibliography, and an index (unseen). SHOSHANA FLAX

From the November 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.