Persons of Interest: The Untold Rewards of Picture Book Biographies

It didn’t exactly have to happen.

Abraham LincolnIn 1936, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, treasured for their radiant portrayals of child life in Ingri’s native Norway, took up George Washington, and with the wide eyes of new Americans and the same sensitivity to their child audience, struck a chord.  Other d’Aulaire picture book biographies of American icons followed over the next twenty years, and one, their 1938 Abraham  Lincoln, won the Caldecott Medal; but the niche they carved out did not become a genre. Only one similar book appeared: The Columbus Story (1955), a collaboration by Alice Dalgliesh and Leo Politi — she a children’s book editor and ex-school librarian, he a Caldecott-winning illustrator. Like the d’Aulaire books, it became a mainstay of home and school without inspiring emulation.

But history, as told and taught, was about to be shaken up, revised, expanded. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which swept up women and diverse ethnic groups along with African Americans, brought a mandate that children be raised to appreciate the contributions of all peoples.

Children’s books were on the battlefront. Publishing exploded in every genre — history, biography, fiction, picture books — except the one that didn’t quite yet exist. Only one string of picture book biographies appeared in that decade, from an author-illustrator on the trail of interesting individuals.

When she was living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband, Aliki Brandenberg — Aliki to all — produced a picture-book life of the legendary Swiss hero William Tell. Out of her Philadelphia childhood, she profiled Pennsylvania’s own William Penn. Then she heard about the accomplishments of George Washington Carver, the near-legendary black Plant Doctor, and brought out A Weed Is a Flower (1965). Timely then, it’s still fresh today.


Multiculturalism, with its focus on individual achievement; the resurgence of feminism, another seedbed of role models; the ascendance of new media, including the highly pictorial, inherently personal internet — may have been the factors that propelled picture book biographies, reinvented, into the regular line-up. Everything was becoming personalized.

The initial subjects were, to say the least, nontraditional: Mexican painter Diego Rivera; long-forgotten aviator Ruth Law; jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. The creators were, correspondingly, a new mother-and-son team and two outright newcomers. And the books were as diverse in look and sound as their subjects.

Earlier in her career, Jeanette Winter had adapted and illustrated a few Old World folktales, with quiet distinction. Then in 1988 she published a simply told, vibrantly illustrated story of the Underground Railroad, Follow the Drinking Gourd, titled after a folk song that purportedly guided the runaways. In it, we are face to face with a slave auction, with pursuing hounds...and for Winter,  with her future: stories about the lives of real people, stories of real life.

With his political and personal entanglements, Diego Rivera is not exactly infant fodder. But Jonah Winter, in his first effort,  contrives a narrative that is roundly the story of a fledgling artist...consumed, in Jeanette Winter’s engrossing pictures, with painting what he sees. Small as they are, the compositions in Diego (1991) are monumental. Tightly framed, they are intimate; close-ups. The flat, intense color sizzles.

It’s not a truism to say that pictures are the reason for many picture book biographies — the subjects, that is, have inherent pictorial possibilities. Hence the many books about artists. Similarly, subjects with meager pictorial possibilities may be scanted. However, Jeanette Winter, as an artist herself, could see the lives of people in pictorial terms, and pick her subjects — whether J. S. Bach or the Librarian of Basra. Jonah Winter, a versatile storyteller, could assume there’d be an illustrator for his chosen subject, be it the haunted Frida Kahlo or the down-to-earth Sonia Sotomayor.

Ruth Law Thrills a Nation: the striking title of Don Brown’s first book (1993) — is it an assertion? a headline? — suggests what the text confirms: Brown is as much a writer as an artist. A stylist, in both cases, and a wit. When first met, on November 19, 1916, Ruth Law is emerging from a tent on the roof of a Chicago hotel, where she’s been camping to get used to the cold; she’s about to try to fly from Chicago to New York in one day, something never done before. The city’s rooftops and near-empty streets stretch across the wide double-page spread, in lightening shades of blue with shadings of yellow for the approaching dawn. The eye flies, however, to a tiny patch of bright yellow: Ruth’s tent, lit from within. The rooftop camper is about to become a daring,  intrepid — and unflappable — record-setting flyer.

First she must dress for the cold: two woolen suits, one on top of the other; two leather suits; and, last of all, a skirt. “In 1916, a polite lady always wore a skirt.” Two spreads later, Ruth is taking off, skirt stuffed behind her seat: “good sense defeated fashion.”

Brown, the father of two girls and a history buff, found role models for his daughters in out-of-the-way places — not only  increasing the sum of history’s heroines but also enlarging the contours of heroism. In Rare Treasure (1999), Mary Anning  (1799–1847) becomes a world-famous expert on fossils without leaving her English port town. Uncommon Traveler (2000) tracks Mary Kingsley through decades of household duties before she is free, at age thirty, to take off for West Africa — no place for a single Englishwoman in 1893.

That move from Brontë territory to Mary Poppins terrain — Mary Kingsley, too, wields a mean umbrella — also allows Brown the cartoonist to keep company with Brown the landscape artist. And when he shifted from the remarkable accomplishments of little-known women, in the early 2000s, to the early, out-of-step lives of well-known men — Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein — it was his own brand of affectionate, light-handed cartooning that carried the tale.

Style matters. Style of drawing, style of storytelling. The third of the 1990s harbingers, Chris Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Be Bop (1992), is less a biography than an improvisation on a personality — all juicy, exuberant cartooning, bouncy scribbles, and sweeps of color…with a bop-along text. For kids, a rousing performance.

By 2000, you didn’t have to be a colorful personality to rate a picture book biography. The lives of public figures, tweaked, could fit the bill, too. A picture book bio might center on a particular aspect or salient episode of a life; to be true to its subject, it needn’t tell the whole story. African American notables came in for close attention. Untold numbers of children’s books about Martin Luther King Jr. had been published before Martin’s Big Words appeared in 2001, won public acclaim, and captured Caldecott and Coretta Scott King honors. Doreen Rappaport’s concept of the little boy who, hearing his father preach, wants to grow up and “get big words, too” — dramatized throughout by the typography — is amplified by Bryan Collier’s high-intensity, frieze-worthy collages.

Everything is oversize in Rosa (2005), too. But in Nikki Giovanni’s down-home, conversational telling and Bryan Collier’s rich collage close-ups, it’s a personal story of a headline event. We meet the Parks family at breakfast: Mama is recovering from the flu, Rosa’s barber husband Raymond is pleased to be getting extra work at the air force base, and Rosa, on this first day of December, feels “Christmas in the air.” (Turn of page.) Soon the ladies’ alteration department, where Rosa works, will be “very, very busy.”

The accompanying illustration is a portrait of Rosa Parks, tape measure draped around her neck, against a tableau of seamstresses, sewing machines, and dressmakers’ dummies — with the state capitol looming in the background. By the time the bus driver’s head looms fatefully over Mrs. Parks’s calm brow and he demands her seat, her cause is ours.

Booker T. Washington is another matter — a fallen hero discredited, long before the 1960s, by his accommodation to segregation, and only recently reconsidered. But his autobiography Up from Slavery (1901) stood for fifty years as one of the great American success stories. And it’s the young Booker, struggling to learn to read, struggling to reach Hampton Institute and further his education, who’s the subject of Jabari Asim’s Fifty Cents and a Dream (2012) and he’s as heroic a figure as ever.

Again, Bryan Collier’s fractured illustrations are at once majestic, like murals, and personal, ruminative; Washington’s hopes, his dreams, summon forth collage-images of his suffering forebears. Between covers, this is public art.

Only someone familiar with the high caliber artwork that once bolstered the words in Sports Illustrated — while magazine  illustration generally was in eclipse — might have anticipated that lives of sports heroes would stand out among picture book  biographies.

Jonah Winter, a professed baseball nut and a wordsmith, a poet, had something to do with this. Each Winter bio tells its story differently. In Roberto Clemente (2005), the vehicle is a confiding near-verse: “Now this was something very strange, / being on a losing team. / For the young Puerto Rican, / everything was strange.” Clemente will quickly prove himself on the field — to the accompaniment of Raúl Colón’s kaleidoscopic images — but fight slurs from the press box.

“You gotta be kidding!” In You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (2009), Winter casts the story of the Dodgers’ great lefty pitcher in a hard-boiled vernacular reminiscent of Ring Lardner: the voice of an oldster. This is a complex story of a guy who’s  inconsistent in his play and a problem to himself — but certain, as a Jew, that he won’t pitch the first game of the World Series on a High Holy Day. André Carrilho’s molded caricatures have the requisite weight and bite: whether Koufax is pitching at full speed or soaking his painful elbow afterward, it’s high theater.

Becoming Babe RuthFor Matt Tavares, Becoming Babe Ruth (2013) might stand as a culmination. He’d written about boys “magicked” by baseball; about a short, gutsy player and the shortest home run in baseball history; about Henry Aaron’s troubles playing baseball while black. Heroes of a spotless sort. Babe Ruth, on the other hand, was a child delinquent raised in a Catholic reform school — to put it more bluntly than Tavares does — who also enjoys the perks of his fabulous success (“fancy clothes,” “fast cars,” “wild parties”) but never forgets Saint Mary’s or its “inmates.”

Three-dimensional photorealism is not the ideal medium for conveying emotion: no tremor, no nuance. But Tavares, a master of billboard-scale baseball action, also plays his dramatic cards astutely. Leading up to Ruth’s years of acclaim and payback benevolence are vignettes of the young George domiciled with hundreds of other boys — eating, studying, working by the rules; and disaffected, dejected. “But there is one thing that he does like about Saint Mary’s.” Just before, we saw him as a tiny figure led reluctantly into the tall gray bastion of Saint Mary’s; overleaf, we see the mighty Brother Matthias at bat — and glimpse a future for his bedazzled young admirer. Tavares has no need to use loaded, descriptive words, as I have. The clean prose has punch; the pictures carry, and amplify, the meaning.

Withal, picture book bios have the potential to follow a star and elude categories. Here are just a few of the unexpectable.

Who is she? Not until the afterword does the name Roosevelt appear in Barbara Cooney’s Eleanor (1996). The homely, awkward young girl, a social misfit, grows into a capable young woman in a moving, self-contained story, the only time the prodigious Cooney undertook the life of a real person.

The alter-ego. Who’d have guessed that Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (2000), a tale from Thoreau’s Walden enacted by two animal friends, would lead to further Henry adventures — all pictured in a cheery, cubistic style that attracts where it might deter. Like the laconic text, it suits the offhand precision of the original Henry channeled by D. B. Johnson.

Family man. Pop artist Andy Warhol opens his door to the visiting Pittsburgh Warholas — six kids, including author-illustrator-narrator James Warhola, and their parents — and artistic hullabaloo ensues at Uncle Andy’s (2003). Soup cans, soda-pop bottles, pictures of Elvis Presley: “everything was art,” according to Uncle Andy. A lark, scrumptiously illustrated.

Affinity. First it’s a stuffed chimp companion, then it’s a jungle woman in a storybook with her name — and young Jane Goodall has found her life’s calling. The mix of media — childlike drawings (and child-drawings), vintage engravings, and photos — in Patrick McDonnell’s cheeky Me…Jane (2011) is equally, needfully, enticingly original.

Why one picture book biography after another about the same person? Why so many books about Georgia O’Keeffe, for example? Because, especially in picture-book form, it’s always possible to tell a different story, to express different feelings.

Of the half dozen or so books about O’Keeffe, each somewhat different in approach, two stand out. Otherwise quite different, they both have images strong enough to remember O’Keeffe by.

Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe (2009) is an original. Kathryn Lasky presents the artist as an old lady, Georgia, getting up in the dark, despite her pains, to get going: “She grabs her bag, her paint box and brushes, a canvas for painting, and her walking stick for scaring off rattlesnakes.” Ora Eitan’s spare illustrations are as suggestive as Lasky’s narrative is exact. But both can evoke quiet. Georgia has come home before daylight. “All day long Georgia will paint and think.” The accompanying picture, like many in this well-turned book, is eloquent in its abstraction.

O’Keeffe was a prime subject for Jeanette Winter. Written in the first person, My Name Is Georgia (1998) melds words and pictures as perhaps only an artist can — an artist in the person of O’Keeffe. On a left-hand page, she gathers bones — “big bones, little bones, short bones, long bones, a cow’s skull, a horse’s skull, a ram’s skull — and [brings] the bones home to paint.” On the right-hand page, in italics because it’s a quote, “One day I held one up against the sky / and saw the blue through that hole. I  painted what I saw.” She’s there, intensely present. The book concludes with a double-page spread worthy of word-and-picture immortality even if it were not a picture, twice-over, of the sky. The last few words, O’Keeffe’s own: “Kiss the sky for me…

What picture book biographies can do, at their best, can be done no other way. The pictures rivet attention, convey emotion,  imprint a moment. The words are malleable, variable — poetry? everyday speech? a confidence? — not mere explanations. A new Rosa, or Babe, or Georgia emerges.

From the September/October 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Barbara Bader
Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.
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Pat Toney

I recommended "Electric Ben" to a patron yesterday

Posted : Sep 11, 2013 03:52



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