Make way

These seven picture-book biographies for primary and intermediate readers celebrate book creators: authors, illustrators, editors (and even, in a dual-Ducklings twist, a sculptor!). For more, see the Authors tag on the Guide/Reviews Database; for example, check out Planting Stories by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Pura’s Cuentos by Annette Bay Pimentel for introductions to the Pura Belpré Award’s namesake (and see also our May/June 2021 Magazine special issue). 

Good Books for Bad Children: The Genius of Ursula Nordstrom 
by Beth Kephart; illus. by Chloe Bristol 
Primary, Intermediate    Schwartz/Random    48 pp. 
9/23    9780593379578    $18.99 
Library ed.  9780593379592    $21.99 
e-book ed.  9781774881996    $11.99 

“Ursula Nordstrom was a grown-up who never forgot what it was to be a child.” Kephart’s picture-book biography of legendary Harper editor Nordstrom (1910–1988) — who published so many classics of mid-twentieth-century children’s literature — captures her passion for her work, her close relationships with writers and artists, her eagerness to discover new talent, her affinity for child readers. The book begins with Nordstrom’s rather solitary and fraught childhood (her parents often fought, then divorced) before moving on to her adult life (rising through the ranks to become head of Harper’s children’s division). Kephart hits her stride when describing Nordstrom as an editor, backing up every general statement with an example and often a quote. She liberally sprinkles the text with Nordstrom’s own words (“‘Answer that!’ she’d yell at her assistant when the phone would ring. ‘That could be the next Mark Twain’”), treating readers to her distinct voice and personality and lending the text unusual immediacy. Bristol’s illustrations nicely establish time and place and include appearances by some of the stellar creators Nordstrom nurtured, including E. B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, and John Steptoe. Leaving aside the question of what Nordstrom might have thought about the child appeal of a picture-book biography about a book editor (however groundbreaking and remarkable), this is an excellent encapsulation of a seminal figure in children’s books. An author’s note and bibliography are appended. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO 

Make Way: The Story of Robert McCloskey, Nancy Schön, and Some Very Famous Ducklings
by Angela Burke Kunkel; illus. by Claire Keane 
Primary, Intermediate    Random House Studio/Random    48 pp. 
4/23    9780593373354    $19.99 
Library ed.  9780593373361    $22.99 
e-book ed.  9780593373378    $11.99 

This story spans decades, introducing two artists separately until Nancy Schön (born 1928) begins work on her sculptures of Robert McCloskey’s (1914–2003) beloved duckling characters for Boston’s Public Garden. Kunkel (Digging for Words, rev. 1/21) dips into and out of each creator’s story line smoothly and effectively, advancing the narrative to get to the heart of the book: how an illustrator’s drawings were re-envisioned by a sculptor as three-dimensional public art. Keane’s digital illustrations on sepia-tinted backgrounds have an appropriately vintage look; her loose lines and energetic compositions are a good match for the conversational (and lengthy) text. After some brief background about each artist’s early years, three double-page spreads neatly outline McCloskey’s path to the publication of Make Way for Ducklings in 1941. Schön’s artistic career is more circuitous (raising a family is her priority), and she receives less recognition; once she conceives of the duckling project, Kunkel focuses on the sculptor’s meticulous process, along with the added pressure of interpreting a living artist’s iconic characters. Scenes of meetings between McCloskey and Schön reveal how the two navigated a potentially tricky collaboration. An author’s note and timeline provide more detail about the subjects and the sculptures. For more on McCloskey and the creation of his Caldecott Medal–winning book, read Smith’s Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards (rev. 11/22). KITTY FLYNN 

Tomfoolery!: Randolph Caldecott and the Rambunctious Coming-of-Age of Children’s Books
by Michelle Markel; illus. by Barbara McClintock 
Primary    Chronicle    40 pp. 
11/23    9780811879231    $18.99 

British illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886) transformed illustrated books for children (“stiff, full of pretty poses and cluttered scenery”) into picture books (ones that featured stories that “tumble[d] forth like life”). Markel briefly covers Caldecott’s boyhood, emphasizing his love of drawing and of the outdoors, the latter despite a weak heart. She speaks directly to readers, telling them to move fast (“Quick!”) or they’ll miss the boy McClintock depicts as racing across the page. As an adult, Caldecott works in a bank but keeps drawing and begins illustrating travel books and, eventually, books for children. Markel emphasizes the artist’s ability to capture action on the page and fills this lively text with bustling active verbs (lunging, strutting, pounce), set off in larger letters and a different font color. Likewise, McClintock’s exquisite, energetic illustrations depict Caldecott at the drawing board, creatures bursting forth from his paper. Several instances in the book reproduce the artist’s drawings, and one stunning wordless spread showcases the illustration from The Diverting History of John Gilpin that adorns the Caldecott Medal. (The book’s abundant back matter includes notes on where Caldecott’s art appears in the book.) Children and/or animals appear on nearly every spread of this exuberant tribute to the illustrator who revolutionized children’s books. JULIE DANIELSON 

Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life
by Jerry Pinkney; illus. by the author 
Intermediate     Little, Brown    160 pp. 
1/23    9780316383851    $17.99 

Reflecting on some memorable moments of his life, celebrated author-illustrator Pinkney offers an intimate look back to his childhood in this poignant, posthumously published memoir. The book opens in 1949 in a close-knit African American community in Philadelphia, where nine-year-old Jerry’s days are filled with the camaraderie of his “buddies” and their escapades in the neighborhood. Having drawn for as long as he could remember, Pinkney recalled, “It was my way of living in my imagination, and breaking free of the constraints I was growing up with. Everything I saw, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled, I’d think of as a picture.” He thrived in a nurturing, sometimes chaotic home; his supportive family recognized his talent, but he faced challenges in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. At age thirteen, while working at a newsstand, he met a comics artist who invited Pinkney to visit his studio, leading the young man to believe “that my talents might lead to an actual profession.” Pinkney’s conversational text, printed in a dyslexia-friendly font (per the book’s introduction), is accompanied by equally energetic and copious sketches that weave in and out of the pages; final art had not been completed upon his death. An opening editor’s note explains Pinkney’s vision for the book, which he had been thinking about and working on for a decade, until he died in 2021: “This book has been visually composed in a way that differs from Jerry’s intention but hopefully still captures his goal…to believably bring readers into the world in which he grew up [through] a visually immersive approach.” A list of key dates and selected accomplishments of this extraordinary artist is appended. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY 

Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards: The Making of Make Way for Ducklings
by Emma Bland Smith; illus. by Becca Stadtlander 
Primary    Calkins/Astra    40 pp.     
11/22    9781635923926    $18.99 
e-book ed.  9781635928273    $11.99 

On page one of this true story behind the making of the 1942 Caldecott-winning Make Way for Ducklings, readers see legendary author-illustrator McCloskey hard at work in his studio. After completing his first children’s book (Lentil, 1940), he wants to put mallard ducks into a story but struggles to draw them correctly. He brings home a box of “very alive (and very LOUD)” ducklings after deciding that he needs “live models.” They wreak havoc, but he “was willing to do whatever it took to make these drawings perfect,” and in the end, the drawings were “absolutely top-notch!” Smith emphasizes her subject’s determination (respectfully referring to him throughout as “Mr. McCloskey”), with the spreads depicting the ducks’ “terrible mess” and “infernal quacking” being sure to delight young readers. Stadtlander captures it all in thickly textured gouache and colored-pencil illustrations. Back matter includes a note from McCloskey’s daughter Jane; information about publisher Viking’s May Massee, the exacting editor depicted in the story; a timeline; and more. Children’s literature aficionados will note mention of McCloskey’s roommate (who was, in point of fact, illustrator Marc Simont) and will also note the story’s absence of red wine, which he and Simont fed the ducks to slow them down for easier drawing. This is the children’s version of that tale, after all—and a satisfying one at that. JULIE DANIELSON 

A Book, Too, Can Be a Star: The Story of Madeleine L’Engle and the Making of A Wrinkle in Time 
by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Jennifer Adams; illus. by Adelina Lirius 
Primary, Intermediate    Farrar    40 pp.     
10/22    9780374388485    $18.99 

This picture book, a partial biography co-written by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Voiklis, begins when baby Madeleine’s parents introduce her to the stars in the night sky, a formative memory. It then takes readers through her childhood and early career, and up to the storied publication of her 1963 Newbery Award–­winning classic, A Wrinkle in Time. Flowing throughout the text is the connection between humanity and the stars, both metaphorical and scientific, from which L’Engle drew comfort and inspiration. Full of stars and starlight, the digital illustrations, with some elements painted traditionally with gouache, blend reality and the fantastical in glorious contrasting colors and swirling lines. Text incorporated into the art poses questions that the author herself might have asked, offering opportunities for readers to consider their own answers: “What is my place in the universe?” “Should I keep doing this?” The questions change as she matures but are always rooted in the themes of finding purpose and fulfillment. The book celebrates L’Engle for her writing career but also for her inquisitive approach to the world around her, highlighting her love of music, art, theater, and stories. For those whose interest is piqued, expansive back matter provides more insight into L’Engle’s life and work as well as the ­creators’ connections to her. JULIE ROACH 

Maya’s Song
by Renée Watson; illus. by Bryan Collier 
Primary, Intermediate    Harper/HarperCollins    48 pp.     
9/22    9780062871589    $19.99 

In free-verse poems, Watson describes key experiences in Maya Angelou’s life. She highlights influential family members, such as Maya’s brother (a source of strength) and Momma (grandmother and shrewd store owner) as well as historical figures such as Malcolm X and Dr. ­Martin Luther King Jr., close friends in her adult life who invite her to speak, write, and work toward the cause of freedom for all. Watson doesn’t shy away from addressing tough topics, including Maya at age seven being attacked by her mother’s boyfriend, which left her mute for years. Collier’s accomplished illustrations have a strong narrative pull. Two spreads are particularly compelling. “Caged In” zooms in on the top half of Maya’s face, enlarged to show eyes full of pain, with a cage and shadow of a bird, while the following spread shows the bottom half of that same face with her mouth encircled by a lotus-like flower and that cage imprisoning her words. Both illustrations are drenched in the blue of sadness that Collier describes in his illustrator’s note. This eloquent picture book is a portrait of a resilient woman with a deep capacity for using words to find hope in the world. SYLVIA VARDELL

From the August 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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