Deborah L. Thompson
Art is . . . words on a page or paint strokes on a canvas, wall, side of a building, or postage stamp. Art can be subversive, controversial, or a vehicle for social justice. Above all, art is expression—a way to communicate, to make accessible the beauty of words, instrumental or vocal music, photography, paintings, or even graffiti. The picture book biographies of individuals who have enriched the world through their art reviewed in this column are suitable for sharing with readers of all ages.
Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua. Gloria Amescua. Illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh. (2021). Abrams.
Gloria Amescua’s expressive, lyrical text and Duncan Tonatiuh’s signature style illustrations incorporating elements of indigenous Mexican art tell the story of Julia (later Luz) Jiménez (1897-1965), known as the “soul of Mexico.” Growing up in Milpa Alta, Luz listened to the stories of elders and learned traditional skills from her family. She dreamed of becoming a teacher, but there were no schools for indigenous children—until the government decided that they needed transformative schooling in which native language and dress were forbidden. When Milpa Alta was destroyed during the Mexican Revolution, the survivors in the Jiménez family fled to Mexico City. With her strong native features, Luz became a favorite model of painters, photographers, and sculptors. While posing, she told stories and shared the skills that had been passed on to her. Eventually, she did become a teacher of the Nahua language and culture to students and scholars. Back matter includes author’s and illustrator’s notes, a photograph of Luz posing for artists, a timeline, a glossary, sources notes, and a select bibliography.
Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist. Laurie Lawlor. Illus. by Becca Stadtlander. (2021). Holiday House.
Laurie Lawlor portrays Marianne North (1830-1890), who grew up in the Victorian era in which females from wealthy British families were expected to marry and provide heirs, but wanted to do something else. She read books, eavesdropped on her father’s conversations with scientists who visited their home, and taught herself botany. After the deaths of her parents, Marianne did what she had always wanted to do: travel around the world and paint native flora. She donated her extensive art collection to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Unlike her contemporary botanical artists who painted their specimens against white backgrounds, Marianne included in her paintings the environment in which she found her specimens, which enabled visitors to the Marianne North Gallery to view plants and animals in their natural habitats. Becca Stadtlander’s luminous mixed-media illustrations enhance Lawlor’s narrative. Back matter includes information on Marianne’s paintings and published writings, sources, source notes for quotes, a “Who’s Who” list of famous people Marianne met in her lifetime, and picture credits for the reproductions of eight of her botanical paintings featured on the endpapers.
Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neal Hurston. Alicia D. Williams. Illus. by Jacqueline Alcántra. (2021). Atheneum.
This richly illustrated biography is a joyful “true life tale” of Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) filled with the rhythmic cadence of black dialect of South Florida. During her childhood, Zora listened to the stories of old timers gathered at Joe Clarke’s general store and made up tales about characters she created. Zora’s mother encouraged her to “jump at the sun” to move beyond the strictures of her small community. When her mother died, Zora was sent to boarding school. Her stepmother, however, thought money spent on her education unnecessary. Zora left home at the age of fourteen, and after years of starts and stops, she jumped to Baltimore and attended high school (after setting her age back ten years to sixteen). Then she jumped to Howard University, where exposure to famous black writers like W.E.B. DuBois spurred her to jump to Harlem. At Barnard College, her next jump, Zora’s anthropology professor, Franz Boas, encouraged her to collect black folklore for her thesis. Collecting folk stories!? That was something Zora had been doing since her youth. After graduating, she continued to collect folklore and published her own stories. Back matter includes an author’s note, “Additional Reading” (Hurston’s books for “youngin” and “older folk), and sources.
King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin. Stephen Costanza. (2021). Atheneum.
Stephen Costanza celebrates the life of African American Scott Joplin (c. 1867-1917) with vibrant double-page illustrations (rendered in gouache, waxed pastels, and collage) and a rhythmic text, full of onomatopoeia and colorful figurative language. Growing up in Texas, Scott absorbed the hymns and work songs of newly freed slaves and listened to the syncopation of natural sounds—buzzing wasps, clicking cicadas, and booming thunderstorms or trains. He was surrounded by music in his home where all members of the family played instruments, and while helping his mother clean the house of a rich white family, he discovered the piano. His parents bought Scott an old piano from a salesman who gave him piano lessons in exchange for his mother’s doing his housework. Scott loved learning to play marches, arias, and classical compositions, but most of all, he wanted to compose his own songs. And he did. After playing piano in saloons along the Mississippi Valley, Scott settled in Sedalia, Missouri, gave piano lessons, played piano at the Maple Leaf Club, and studied music at a local college. After many rejections, “Maple Leaf Rag” was released by publisher John Stark in 1899, and Scott Joplin was on his way to becoming the “King of Ragtime.” Back matter includes an author’s note, recommended listening, and a bibliography.
A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice. Jasmine A. Stirling.
Illus. by Vesper Stamper. (2021). Bloomsbury.
With an engaging narrative and expressive, soft colored illustrations, Jasmine A. Stirling and Vesper Stamper offer an accessible biography of Jane Austen (1775-1817) that focuses on the British novelist’s childhood. Jane grew up in a home where words were treasured. Stories, poetry, debates, and plays resonated throughout the Austen’s house. Jane’s father, an Anglican rector, encouraged his daughters to extend their knowledge, to write, to think, and to reflect. Stirling reveals how Jane’s observations and life experiences allowed her to create the memorable characters who found their way into her beloved novels, which led to the recognition of her literary genius. When her father died, however, Jane’s words ceased. Overcoming grief and financial struggles, Jane eventually recovered her voice, and she wrote and wrote until her death at the age of forty-two. Back matter includes sources of quotations, more on Jane Austen and her writing, author’s and illustrator’s notes, a list of Austen’s novels, resources for young readers, and a selected bibliography.
The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. Cynthia Levinson. Illus. by Evan Turk. (2021). Abrams.
Evan Turk’s bold, textured mixed-media illustrations complement Cynthia Levinson’s compelling narrative to make a powerful statement about art’s dominion over social injustice in this beautifully crafted biography of artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Young Ben drew everything he saw in his Lithuanian village and witnessed social injustice. His father was banished to Siberia by Czar Nicolas II for advocating for workers’ rights. After he escaped and made his way to America, he sent for his family. Ben found life as a Jewish immigrant harsh, but he kept drawing. Hard times prevented him from completing school, and at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a lithographer. While going to art school at night, Ben clashed with a teacher who disagreed with his telling of real-life stories with his art. During the Great Depression, his use of a camera to portray the abject poverty of everyday Americans was noticed by government officials who thought him disloyal. But even a visit from the FBI did not turn Ben Shahn from using art to fight for social justice. Back matter includes an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, a timeline, a selected bibliography, a list of personal interviews, site visits, websites, and source notes.
Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football Playing Artist Ernie Barnes. Don Tate. (2021). Abrams.
Author-illustrator Don Tate chronicles the life of professional football player and artist Ernest (Ernie) Barnes (1938-2009). Growing up in “the Bottoms,” a poor African American neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, sports didn’t come easy for Ernest, but he was good at one thing—art. Ernest always carried a sketch book that he filled with drawings of people and anything that interested him, and was encouraged by his mother, who recognized his talent. Art was his life, but with the help of his high school weightlifting coach, Ernest trained and became a star athlete. Awarded a scholarship to all-black North Carolina College, he studied art while playing football, and then continued drawing while playing professional football for five years. After a career-ending injury took him out of the game, he became the official artist of the New York Jets and went on to be recognized for his paintings celebrating African American life. Back matter includes an afterword, author’s note, images of Barnes’ football cards, source notes, and a bibliography of articles, books, videos, and websites.
Sister Corita’s Words and Shapes. Jeanette Winter. (2021). Beach Lane.
Jeanette Winter tells the life story of Sister Mary Corita with a simple text and illustrations that pay homage to her bold, colorful artwork. When Frances Elizabeth Kent (1918-1986), who grew up in Hollywood and went to the nuns’ school, entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent, she became “a nun, and a teacher, and an artist—all at the same time.” She taught her students to view letters, words, and shapes in a different way. She made colorful silk-screen prints of details of big things in the world. Sister Corita’s organization of the nuns and students in a joyful parade to celebrate St. Mary’s Day at the convent led to a clash with the Archbishop of Los Angeles, who was displeased with Sister Corita’s modern ideas. Sister Corita left the convent and moved to Boston. Now she was just Corita. No longer a nun but already famous for her colorful, exuberiant artwork, she continued to use art to spread messages of happiness, love, faith, peace, and hope. Back matter includes Sister Corita’s ten rules for students, more about her life, and a selected bibliography.
Unbound: The Life + Art of Judith Scott. Joyce Scott (with Brie Spangler). Illus. by
Melissa Sweet. (2021). Alfred A. Knopf.
Joyce Scott invites readers into the world of her twin sister, renown fiber artist Judith Scott (1943-2005). In their early years, Judith, born with Down Syndrome, and Joyce share a connection that strengthened each twin, but when Joyce begins kindergarten, Judith is institutionalized in a place that is dark and dreary in contrast to the bright, colorful world that she and Joyce had been sharing. (Melissa Sweet expresses the stages of Judith’s life visually with varying light and dark palettes.) Decades go by, and Joyce brings Judith home to live with her and enrolls her in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. Judith does not participate in any of the activities for adults with disabilities until one day she joins a class in which a teacher had placed an array of natural materials on a table. Judith picks up twigs and weaves them together with colorful yarns and threads. Thus, Judith begins her career as a fabric artist who created fiber sculptures that have been exhibited in museums around the world. Back matter includes notes on Judith’s life and art, photos, information on Down Syndrome, a timeline, author’s and illustrator’s notes, sources, and resources on Down Syndrome.
Deborah L. Thompson is a Professor Emeritus at The College of New Jersey
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger, Sarah Duncan and Jeanne Gilliam Fain
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a reader! Superpowers like flying and X-ray vision are pretty cool, but books can send readers on adventures, allow them into the minds of characters, and help increase their brain power. Invite students to exercise their reading superpower with a book as their sidekick during the fall celebration of 2021 Children’s Book Week (November 8-14) and all year long.
Best Friend in the Whole World. Sandra Salsbury. (2021). Peachtree.
One day while walking in the woods, Roland, a lonely rabbit, comes upon a pine cone. He picks up the pine cone, names it Milton, and takes him home. The two become the best of friends. On another walk, Roland sees posters tacked on the trees about a missing friend who looks like Milton and sadly knows he must return Milton to his home. Happily, however, upon seeing the woods full of “Wanted New Friends” notices, he realizes that he can have two best friends in the whole world: Milton (really named Popkin) and Lucy, the cat who posted the original “Missing” notices. Sandra Salsbury’s watercolor illustrations clearly convey Roland’s feeling of loneliness and then happiness expressed in this child-pleasing friendship story. (PreK-Gr 2)
Best Friends-ish (Audrey L & Audrey W #1). Carter Higgins. Illus. by Jennifer K. Mann. (2021). Chronicle.
Audrey Locke thought that second grade would be twice as good as first grade, but her best friend, Diego, has new buddies, and it seems like everyone in Room 19 except her is best at something. When Audrey Waters joins the class, Audrey is annoyed to become Audrey L for the rest of the year. After being assigned Audrey W’s “Welcome Ambassador,” she wonders about her best-friend potential, and as she gets to know her, learns lessons about friendship and acceptance. By the end of the week, the two Audreys’ relationship is clearly “best friends-ish.” Short chapters filled with lots of realistic school-day details, gentle humor, and numerous black-and-white drawings make this new series an engaging choice for readers transitioning to chapter books. (PreK Up)
Blueberry Cake. Sarah Dillard. (2021). Aladdin.
Little Bear wants Mama to make him a blueberry cake, so he sets out with his red bucket to pick wild blueberries in the woods. But picking blueberries and getting them back to Mama isn’t as easy as you might think. Succumbing to the temptation of eating berries and the distractions of the woods thwarts his efforts, and Little Bear arrives home with a bucket full of wildflowers instead of blueberries. After dreaming of blueberry cake, Little Bear goes berry-picking again and gets a blueberry cake—and the reader gets a recipe to make one at home— in this delightful tale told through vivid illustrations and a simple text of speech bubbles. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Curse of the Mummy: Uncovering Tutankhamun’s Tomb. Candace Fleming. (2021). Scholastic Focus.
“It was said…” that during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb many strange things happened. Were these situations a coincidence or a result of a curse? Candace Fleming’s straightforward narrative provides background on the history of mummification and tomb building in ancient Egypt. She details how British Lord Carnarvon, who had been financing treasure hunts in the Valley of the Kings since 1906, and archaeologist Howard Carter got caught up in uncovering King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Many stories of the whats, whys, and hows of the excavation are shared along with captioned black and white archival photographs. Each chapter ends with an “It was said . . .” section related to one purported “curse of the mummy.” Back matter includes an author’s note, map, timeline, bibliography, source notes, photo and illustration credits, and index. (Gr 6 Up)
Fox & Rabbit Celebrate (Fox & Rabbit #3). Beth Ferry. Illus. by Gergely Dudás. (2021). Amulet.
This latest book in Beth Ferry’s graphic novel series invites young readers to join Fox and Rabbit in another adventure as the two friends plan a “super-trooper’” pizza party to celebrate Sparrow’s birthday. Dragon, a new character to the series, agrees to help Fox and Rabbit with heating their grandiose pizza as he tells them he struggles finding friends. As Dragon joins in the joyful celebration of Sparrow’s birthday, his new friends discover it is his birthday too. Young readers will enjoy reading the five linked stories (with alliterative titles) presented in an easy-to-follow graphic format of eight panels per page with vibrant graphite-and ink illustrations and text full of wordplay presented in speech bubbles. (PreK Up)
The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Nizrana Farook. (2021). Peachtree.
Chaya, the twelve-year-old daughter of a village headman, has a habit of stealing from the rich to help those in need in her village, but when she sneaks into the palace and takes the queen’s jewels, she goes too far. Her best friend, Neel, confesses to the robbery and is held in the palace’s underground prison. While he awaits execution, Chaya plots an escape that frees him but leaves them both as wanted criminals. After she steals the king’s elephant, Chaya, Neel, and Nour, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, go on a dangerous adventure through the wild Sri Lankan jungle as they attempt to outrun the palace soldiers. Readers who love non-stop action will enjoy the chase, while the lush description of the Sri Lankan jungle and its exotic plants and animals gives them a peek into a beautiful South Asian Island setting. (Gr 3 Up)
An Occasionally Happy Family. Cliff Burke. (2021). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Thirteen-year-old Theo Ripley, whose mom died two years ago, is not thrilled to be going on a vacation with his older sister, Laura, and his dad to Big Bend National Park in Texas in July. Theo is definitely not the outdoorsy type. As he predicted, the vacation involves too hot temperatures, too many bugs, encounters with annoying hikers, and even an encounter with a bear at their camping site. When Theo and Laura discover their dad’s surprise behind this unexpected vacation, meeting his secret girlfriend, they both have conflicted feelings about this and must grapple with the idea of their dad being read to move on while they are still grieving over their mom’s death. This story about a family overcoming life’s challenges is realistic and also funny in all of the right places. (Gr 6-8)
Percy’s Museum. Sara O’Leary. Illus. by Carmen Mok. (2021). Groundwood.
Percy leaves his old home in the city, where there was always something to do and friends with whom to do it, and finds himself in the middle of the country in complete solitude. However, once he discovers the busy activity of bees, ants, and birds in his backyard, he begins to carefully explore the ever-changing natural world around him, makes drawings of his observations, and builds a nature collection in a small shed in his backyard. His posting of a “Percy’s Museum” sign on the mailbox attracts attention, and he begins to make friends by inviting them to visit the museum filled with his environmental discoveries. Carmen Mok’s colorful artwork, rendered in gouache and colored pencil, complements Sara O’Leary’s joyful story of adjusting to moving to a new home, exploring nature, and making new friends. (PreK-Gr 2)
To Tell You the Truth. Beth Vrabel. (2021). Atheneum.
Trixy, a talkative and adventurous fourth grader had loved spending time with her grandmother, a great storyteller, who has died. When she must write true stories to bring up her failing grade in English, Trixy, who struggles to find her voice as a writer, has her mind filled with Gran’s stories of her childhood. Although Gran had told her never to share her stories with anyone, Trixy writes up some of them for the assignment. The stories are good, but are they true stories? To prove that Gran didn’t just make them up, Trixy sets out on an adventurous road trip through Tennessee with her best friend, Raymond, and his father and sister to uncover the truth about Gran and her family. This engaging story explores the power of the truth in troubling times and of a family coming together. (Gr 3 Up)
Travels to Cuba (Travels with My Family #5). Marie-Louise Gay & David Hamel. Illus. by Marie-Louise Gay. (2021). Groundwood.
Charlie and his younger brother, Max, are quite the travelers. They are used to their Cuban family leaving their home in Canada for adventurous out-of-the ordinary vacations. Now they are traveling to Cuba where their mother, an artist, has been asked to work with local school children. The boys expect to enjoy beautiful beaches, but what they experience is something quite different. During their excursions they meet kind people, eat delicious food, and listen to wonderful music, but they also encounter the poverty, hunger, fear, and rules of the communist country. Short chapters, peppered with Spanish terms and black-and-white illustrations, make this book an interesting introduction to present-day Cuba and a good read aloud choice for children in upper elementary grades. (Gr 3-5)
Trouble with Tattle-Tails (The Fabled Stables #2). Jonathan Auxier. Illus. by Olga Demidova. (2021). Amulet.
Young Auggie works on an island at the Fabled Stables, “a magical place full of one-of-a kind creatures.” The appearance of an empty stall is the signal that Auggie must rescue a new beast. When they are magically transported to the village of Rainbow’s End, Fen, who is a literal Stick-in-the-Mud, helps Auggie recover a pot of gold that has been stolen by two villainous Rooks, who are always trying to steal one-of-a-kind things (including Auggie’s friend Willa the Wisp in the first book in the series), before coming up with a clever plan to free the unhappy townspeople of the tattle-tails that are attached to them. After they return to the Fabled Stables with Nunya, the original Tattle-Tail, Auggie solves the problem of knowing what the Unfeeling Brute, a creature with no eyes, ears, mouth, or nose, needs by attaching Nunya to it. Whimsical, full-colored artwork adds to the fun of reading this fanciful early chapter book. (PreK Up)
Walls. L. M. Elliott. Photo essay by Megan Behm. (2021). Algonquin.
It is August 1960, and divided Berlin is on the frontline of the Cold War. Disappointed over not having the much-anticipated opportunity of pitching his baseball team to the state championship in Virginia, fifteen-year-old Drew has moved with his family to West Berlin for his military dad’s new assignment. When Drew meets his German cousin Mattias, who lives in East Berlin, they clash over politics and beliefs, but gradually form a tentative truce as they observe each other’s lives and find common ground, including a love of music. Every chapter features a photo essay explaining key historical and cultural happenings occurring synchronously with the book’s events as the story spans the tension-filled year before the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961. Back matter includes an author’s note, acknowledgments, selected sources, and photo credits. (Gr 6-8)
The Year I Flew Away. Marie Arnold. (2021). Versify.
In 1985, when ten-year-old Gabrielle has the opportunity to leave her small village in Haiti and go to America, she has to take it even if it means leaving her parents behind while they wait for their papers. Living with relatives in Brooklyn, Gabrielle struggles with homesickness and not fitting in at school. When Lady Lydia, a witch, offers her a magic mango to make her problems go away in exchange for her essence, Gabrielle accepts. But is the price of getting her wish to be a “real” American too great? With elements of magical realism, Gabrielle’s story shares the day-to-day challenges of being a young Haitian immigrant who wants to belong while also remaining true to her identity. (Gr 3 Up)
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger is an assistant professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Department at James Madison University. Sarah Duncan is an associate professor in the College of Education at Lipscomb University. Jeanne Gilliam Fain is a professor in the College of Education at Lipscomb University.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).