Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Biographies offer stories about the lives and achievements of memorable individuals. This column includes reviews of recently published biographies, written in various formats, which will engage readers in thinking about not only how these life stories of people (some familiar and others new to them) have been shaped by the times and places in which they lived but also how reading about them contributes to their own understanding of events of the past and present.
The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars!: A Life of Edwin Hubble. Isabelle Marinov. Illus. by Deborah Marcero. (2021). Enchanted Lion.
Young Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) loved the stars and never lost his curiosity about the universe. Following years as a high school teacher, he returned to college to study astronomy and then began working at Mount Wilson Observatory in California. After many nights spent at the telescope taking pictures of the sky, measuring, and calculating, Hubble discovered that the Andromeda nebula was a galaxy, proving that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy. He went on to identify many other galaxies and to prove that as galaxies move away from each other, the universe expands. Isabelle Marinov’s lyrical narrative with a repeated refrain of three questions—"How many stars are in the sky? / How did the universe begin? / Where did it come from”— and Deborah Marcero’s mixed-media illustrations, including a gatefold that dramatically shows the vastness of the universe, create an awe-inspiring biography for young readers. Back matter includes author and illustrator notes, notes on the importance of Hubble’s discoveries, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars. Laurie Wallmark. Illus. by Brooke Smart. (2021). Abrams.
Through Laurie Wallmark’s engaging narrative and Brooke Smart’s digitally-assembled watercolor and gouache illustrations that incorporate quotes and ribbons of coded messages, readers learn about the secret, once classified, accomplishments of Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892-1980), an early cryptanalyst, who was involved in the “greatest spy roundup in American history.” Elizebeth, who studied literature and loved exploring the complex structure and patterns of languages, transferred her interests to cryptology. When the U.S. entered World War I, Elizebeth and her husband, scientist William Friedman, developed a government code-breaking unit that uncovered enemy secrets. During WW II, Elizebeth created the Office of Strategic Services’ code-breaking unit, which was instrumental in cracking the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma Code that uncovered Nazi secrets. Back matter includes notes on codes and ciphers, a "Crack the Code!" challenge for readers, information on cryptology today, a timeline of Elizebeth’s life, and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Harriet Tubman (She Persisted). Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Gillian Flint. (2021). Philomel.
In this first book in Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger’s new early chapter book series of biographies of women who worked hard to fulfill their dreams, Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the life story of Harriet Tubman (ca. 1822-1913), born into slavery on a Maryland plantation, whose dreams of freedom led her to make the treacherous flight north to Pennsylvania, a free state, in 1849. Harriet went on to make numerous journeys south to bring family members and other enslaved people to freedom, becoming “one of the most persistent conductors on the Underground Railroad.” During the Civil War, she served as a nurse and spy for the Union Army. As she relates the story of “the woman called Moses,” Pinkney weaves in many details about slavery in child-friendly language. Back matter includes a “How You Can Persists” section of activities to honor Harriet Tubman and references (books and websites). (PreK Up)
The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy. Kekla Magoon. Illus. by Laura Foreman. (2021). Quill Tree.
This engaging picture book biography presents the story of Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), who devoted his life to making the United States “a fair and equal place for all people.” Growing up in segregated Baltimore, Maryland, surrounded by signs (such as “WHITES ONLY” and “COLORED WAITING ROOM”), Thurgood knew that spaces for Black people and white people were separate but not equal. After being assigned to read the Constitution as punishment for misbehaving in class, he knew that segregation laws were wrong. Following graduation from law school, Marshall took on civil rights cases, became a special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and argued cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. He became a federal judge, was appointed Solicitor General to argue cases in the Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. government, and was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson for a seat on the Supreme Court. Sworn in as an associate justice on October 2, 1967, he became the first Black member of the Supreme Court. Upon his death, Thurgood Marshall was given “the highest tribute” of lying in state in the rotunda of the Supreme Court. Back matter includes a timeline, a “Major Court Cases” section, suggestions for further reading, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Joe Biden: Our 46th President. Beatrice Gormley. (2021). Aladdin.
In fifteen short chapters written in a conversational tone, Beatrice Gormley offers middle-grade readers an accessible biography of Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. (b. 1942), from his growing up in a close-knit family to the beginning months of his presidency. Readers learn of the personal problems and tragedies in his life as well as the challenges he has faced throughout his political career: becoming the U.S. Senator from Delaware in 1974, serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president, winning the 2020 election, and being sworn in on January 20, 2021, as the country’s 46th president. Sidebars inserted throughout the narrative provide related information about events, issues, and topics such as racial segregation, voting rights, civil rights, and the Electoral College. A list of resources is included. (Gr 3 up)
Kidstory: 50 Children and Young People Who Shook Up the World (Stories That Shook Up the World). Tom Adams. Illus. by Sarah Walsh. (2021). Atheneum.
This collective biography introduces readers to young “dreamers and fighters, thinkers and makers, achievers and believers.” The double-page spreads that profile children and young people from around the world and across history to present day include introductory statements, blocks of text about their lives and accomplishments, and quotations. Each entry is illustrated with mixed-media artwork and captioned photographs. Back matter includes a “When They Were Born” spread with thumbnail images of the fifty individuals organized chronologically by birthdate from Pocahontas (ca.1596-1617) to Marley Dias (2005), a glossary, an index, and an explanation of the organization of the profiles into five sections: “Think & Invent,” “Create & Dream,” “Hope & Believe,” “Lead & Triumph,” and “Change & Conquer.” (Gr 3 Up)
Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi. Sigal Samuel. Illus. by Vali Mintizi. (2021). Levine Querido.
In 1590, Osnat, a Kurdish Jew, was born in Mosul, where men studied at a yeshiva built by her father, Rabbi Samuel Barzani. Growing up surrounded by books, Osnat convinced her father to teach her to read in spite of the fact that he believed reading was for boys and that girls should spend their time doing chores. Osnat became a Torah scholar and highly respected teacher. After the deaths of her father and her husband, Osnat became the leader of the Mosul yeshiva. Vali Mintzi’s stunning gouache paintings in rich blue, red, and golden colors beautifully set the scene for this well-crafted biography in which Sigal Samuel weaves legend and fact in telling the story of Osnat Barzani, “a woman with a curious mind, kind heart, and, according to some, miraculous power—the first female rabbi in history.” (Gr 3 Up)
Our Country’s Presidents: A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency (2020 Edition). Ann Bausum. (2021). National Geographic.
This revised reference on the U.S. presidency is organized by six historical periods from “The Presidency and How it Grew” (1789-1837) to “Pathways for a New Millennium” (1989-Present). Each section includes an introduction and timeline of important events followed by profiles of the presidents during the period. Each profile includes a full-page reproduction of the president’s official portrait; a biographical essay including family background, childhood, education, pre-presidential careers, election highlights, key events during the presidency, and post-presidential activities; notable quotes; a text box of quick-reference facts; and numerous captioned illustrations. Interspersed among the profiles are double-page spreads on topics related to the presidency such as “Presidents at War: Serving as the Commander in Chief” and “Election 2020: Choosing a President During a Pandemic.” Back matter includes a chart of presidential election results, a “Find Out More” section (books, websites, videos and TV programs, and places to visit), a bibliography, and an index. (Gr 3 Up)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Iconic Supreme Court Justice (2nd Edition) (Gateway Biographies). James Roland. (2021). Lerner.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993, she became the second woman to serve in that capacity. As a Jewish woman, she battled along the way to attaining this most important judicial position, including fighting anti-Semitism and gender bias in college and law school and working for women’s rights as a lawyer and a judge. On the Supreme Court, she had a reputation for fairness and being able to work with judges supporting opposite sides of issues. She advocated, “Fight for the things that you care about, . . . but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Justice Ginsburg became known as the “Notorious RBG” in popular culture with her words such as “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” She was eighty-seven and actively serving on the Court at the time of her death on September 18, 2020. Back matter includes a timeline, source notes, a bibliography, suggestions for further reading, and an index. (Gr 3 Up).
Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Scientist. Evan Griffith. Illus. by Joanie Stone. (2021). Clarion.
Jeanne Power (1794-1871), a pioneer female naturalist in a sea of male scientists, designed the first glass aquarium and made wooden cages so she could study live sea creatures up close. Joanie Stone’s exquisite digital illustrations complement Evan Griffith’s lyrical text describing Jeanne’s studies and how this self-taught naturalist solved a disagreement among scientists about whether the paper nautilus grew its own shell or stole it from another creature. After becoming the first female member of a science academy in Sicily, she moved to England to share her years of documented research, which, unfortunately, was lost in a storm at sea. After recreating her experiments and patented inventions, she finally found wide acceptance among scientist for her study of sea creatures and paved the way for future women scientists. Back matter includes additional information about Jeanne Power’s life and legacy; notes on the paper nautilus (with photographs), marine biology and conservation, and historical research; and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe. Sandra Nickel. Illus. by Aimée Sicuro. (2021). Abrams.
The life of Vera Rubin (1928-2016) is explored through Sandra Nickel’s informative text and Aimée Sicuro’s beautifully crafted watercolor, ink, and charcoal-pencil illustrations, often incorporating artistic swirls that mimic the major focus of Rubin’s studies, rotating galaxies. Following graduation from Vassar as the only astronomy major in her class and marrying, she continued to test her galaxy movement theories that were refuted or ignored by senior astronomers. After being hired by the Carnegie Institution, she became the first woman to observe at California’s Palomar Observatory and to use the powerful telescopes atop Kitts Peak in Arizona. Her research on what some earlier astronomers called “dark matter,” the mysterious stuff filling the space between the stars which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, serves as an important foundation for current astronomy research. Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline of her life, source notes, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).