Where history and biography meet

The following six nonfiction books for middle-grade readers merge the lines between history book and biography to create compelling works of narrative nonfiction. See also Tanya Lee Stone’s September/October Horn Book Magazine article “The Art of Visual Storytelling in Long-Form Nonfiction,” including her upcoming YA title Peace Is a Chain Reaction; and Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki’s interview in this newsletter issue about their new book Seen and Unseen.

Speak Up, Speak Out!: The Extraordinary Life of “Fighting Shirley Chisholm”
by Tonya Bolden
Intermediate, Middle School    National Geographic    144 pp.    g
1/22    978-1-4263-7236-0    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-4263-7237-7    $27.90
e-book ed.  978-1-4263-7295-7    $10.99

The list of New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s accomplishments during a time when race and gender were overt factors in exclusion from politics makes her an iconic figure in American history. Chisholm’s political rise was groundbreaking on the local, state, and national stages. After this extensively researched biography opens with a map of Brooklyn and a foreword by Stacey Abrams, Bolden traces the arc of Chisholm’s life and the many challenges she faced on her way to becoming the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, helping found the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 1972 becoming the first Black person to run for a major party’s presidential nomination. The daughter of immigrant parents, Chisholm spent her early years living in Barbados with her grandmother, eventually returning to the U.S. to continue her education. Her journey into history was not without twists, turns, and disappointments, and Bolden’s plainspoken narrative paints a picture of a woman who was as hard-working as she was determined. Short, accessible chapters give readers a sense of the times as well as the woman. A photo insert appears partway through; back matter includes an author’s note, sources, and an index. See also recent picture books She Was the First! (rev. 11/20) by Russell-Brown, Shirley Chisholm Dared (rev. 3/21) by Williams, and Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Chambers. MONIQUE HARRIS

I Begin with Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau
by Julie Dunlap; illus. by Megan Elizabeth Baratta
Intermediate, Middle School    Tilbury    96 pp.    g
3/22    978-0-88448-908-5    $18.95

Dunlap begins her illustrated biography with a question posed by Thoreau in a school report, his earliest known writing: “Why do the seasons change?” She anchors the book solidly in primary-source material, following Thoreau’s copious recorded observations of nature, including his classic work Walden, crafting an insightful and vivid portrait for readers. Baratta’s delicately detailed illustrations, which appear to be rendered in watercolor and ink, feature the birds, butterflies, trees, and other parts of nature Thoreau talked about in his journals and letters; each specimen is carefully labeled with its common and/or scientific name (such as “birdsfoot violet / Viola pedata”). A timeline runs across the bottom of many pages, marking days of the year as the book moves through the seasons with specific notes Thoreau made on a particular day: “June 5, Woodpecker nest in apple tree.” Dunlap discusses the importance of her subject’s work in a modern-day study of climate change, encouraging readers to become citizen scientists and record what they see, too. The biography reflects not just Thoreau’s interest in natural history but also his political stances (he and his family were passionate abolitionists), his interest in scientific thought (he read On the Origin of Species with keen interest), and his relationships with other notable contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. An excellent introduction to Thoreau and the turbulent times in which he lived. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE

Defiant: Growing Up in the Jim Crow South
by Wade Hudson
Intermediate, Middle School, High School    Crown    272 pp.    g
10/21   978-0-593-12635-6   $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-12636-3   $20.99

Co-founder (with his wife, Cheryl Willis Hudson) of the pioneering Black publishing company Just Us Books, Wade Hudson here recalls his childhood and teen years in the small northern Louisiana town of Mansfield in the 1950s and 1960s. Hudson opens and closes the memoir with an account of being arrested on a ginned-up conspiracy charge while he was a student activist at Southern University in Baton Rouge. In between, we see his formative years in Mansfield, where as a seventh grader he notes, “I could count on one hand the number of White kids my age that I had seen.” Church, current events, and baseball (pitcher Vida Blue was a teammate) were Wade’s preoccupations, as well as a growing racial consciousness nurtured by all of the above. The telling is plainspoken and direct, and the town, filled with friends and extended family, is practically a character in itself. It takes a village, indeed. Appended matter includes notes, sources, and a timeline to place Hudson’s story within its tumultuous context. ROGER SUTTON

The Waiting Place: When Home Is Lost and a New One Not Yet Found
by Dina Nayeri; photos by Anna Bosch Miralpeix
Intermediate, Middle School    Candlewick    64 pp.    g
5/22    978-1-5362-1362-1    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-1854-1    $18.99

“When home is lost and a new one not yet found, children are sent to the Waiting Place.” In this powerful photo-essay, the Waiting Place is the Katsikas refugee camp in Greece, which Nayeri and ­Miralpeix visited in 2018. Katsikas is supposed to be a temporary home for refugees from Afghanistan and Iran, but as Nayeri describes in her poetic text, the camp is a “gated mouth” that children pass through and then drift while time slips away. “They forget things: first their sums, their street names, their best books. Then beloved faces, stories.” Miralpeix’s photographs effectively set the “field of shipping crates turned into homes” against a contrasting background of blue skies and misty mountains, highlighting Katsikas’s harsh conditions. Nayeri personifies the Waiting Place as a beast hungry for more lives, and the strength of the volume is its focus on real children, including five-year-old Matin from Afghanistan, his friends Ahmad and Hashmat, and his ten-year-old sister Mobina and her friends. Both text and photos compassionately humanize young refugees who, despite coping with unimaginable trauma, have talents and dreams; readers will come away with a deeper understanding of the refugee crisis, which is addressed more fully in a lengthy afterword. A glossary and an author’s note are appended. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Because of You, John Lewis: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. by Keith Henry Brown
Intermediate    Scholastic    40 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-338-75908-2    $18.99

What could have been a straightforward story of a boy meeting his idol becomes in Pinkney’s (Martin Rising, rev. 3/18; Loretta Little Looks Back, rev. 11/20) skilled hands a tapestry of intertwined stories looking back to the past and forward to the future. Pinkney introduces Tybre Faw, who as a great admirer of civil rights icon John Lewis attends one of the annual marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which leads to a life-changing meeting with Lewis. Interwoven is the parallel story of John Lewis, who as a young man wrote Dr. Martin Luther King a letter, which led to a life-changing meeting, a lifelong friendship, a life’s work. And just as, after Dr. King’s death, Lewis was left to “carry on Martin’s dream for peace. / To stitch the seams / of his legacy,” so “legacy’s threads” will stitch in Faw’s hopes and bright promise. Pinkney’s free-verse text skillfully reinforces the connections between Faw and Lewis, using similar language to introduce them (“When you’re a kid from / Johnson City, Tennessee…When you’re a boy / in Troy, Alabama”) or describe galvanizing incidents (Faw reading about Lewis’s activism “lights his dream on fire”; Lewis hearing Dr. King’s voice on the radio “lit a light in John’s heart”). The telescoping nature of the narratives — starting with Faw and looking back to Lewis and King and thence to “Harriet, Frederick, Sojourner, Du Bois” — encourages young readers to acknowledge the shoulders of giants each generation stands on and to themselves work toward “a brighter tomorrow.” Brown’s (Birth of the Cool, rev. 5/19) watercolor and pen art is emotive and introspective, focusing on character and connection rather than on events or action. Appended with a lengthy author’s note, a timeline of the life of Rep. John Lewis, photographs, and the text of the poem “Invictus” read by Tybre Faw at Lewis’s funeral. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

Underground Fire: Hope, Sacrifice, and Courage in the Cherry Mine Disaster
by Sally M. Walker
Intermediate, Middle School    Candlewick    224 pp.    g
10/22    978-1-5362-1240-2    $24.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-2470-2    $24.99

Cherry, a town in north-central Illinois, had seemingly sprung up overnight once several veins of coal were discovered; most residents were recent immigrants. Walker opens her solid account by providing background about mining, immigration, and coal before getting to the events of November 13, 1909, when the Cherry Mine fire started after kerosene from a torch began dripping onto bales of hay. While many miners escaped, a good number remained trapped, waiting to be rescued. The narrative splits at this point, alternating between the miners’ harrowing efforts to survive and the people waiting impatiently aboveground for news. Rescue efforts were complicated by the mine conditions: the temperature remained too hot, the air too poisonous, and embers smoldered, waiting to rekindle at any moment. Miraculously, a small group of men was rescued a week later, but the mine was then shut down for several months before the bodies of the dead could be recovered. While Walker draws attention to the corporate greed that led to unfair working conditions, including child labor, readers may also recognize some contemporary parallels to this story, including the rescue of thirty-three Chilean miners in 2010 (see Scott’s Buried Alive!, rev. 7/12) and twelve Thai boys and their soccer coach in 2018 (see Soontornvat’s All Thirteen, rev. 9/20). An assortment of maps, diagrams, and photographs accompanies the main text, while source notes, bibliography, and an index are appended. JONATHAN HUNT

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

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