Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
The picture book biographies reviewed in this column introduce readers of all ages to creative individuals who have made notable contributions in the visual, literary, and performing arts. Included are books that are great choices for reading aloud to spark interest and discussion in classrooms, libraries, and homes as well as for independent reading.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrap the World: The Story of Two Groundbreaking Environmental Artists. G. Neri. Illus. by Elizabeth Haidle. (2023). Candlewick.
Christo (1935-2020), a poor refugee from Eastern Europe, and Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009), the rich stepdaughter of a French general, met when Christo was commissioned to paint portraits of her family. After Christo shared his “wrapped art” (objects wrapped in cloth and rope) with her, she realized that it was “revealing—while concealing” and asked, “If you can wrap cans and bottles, why not wrap everything?” They fell in love and spent the rest of their lives together, wrapping and surrounding monuments, buildings, landscapes, and even an island with fabrics. Their public art installations included 23 finished projects, some that took decades to complete. For example, ”L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” was begun in 1962 but not completed until 2021, a year after Christo’s death. Elizabeth Haidle’s stylized mixed-media artwork complements G. Neri’s text with real and imagined dialogue that expresses the collaboration of Christo and Jeanne-Claude whose realized environmental art enlivened the “What Is Art” question. Back matter includes additional biographical information, an author’s note, a collection of fun facts about the couple, and a bibliography (books, films, website). (PreK Up)
The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music. Roberta Flack (with Tonya Bolden). Illus. by Hayden Goodman. (2023). Anne Schwartz.
Through a simple lyrical text accompanied by Hayden Goodman’s joyous gouache paintings, singer Roberta Flack (b. 1937) tells the story of her childhood growing up in a musical family in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and, later, Green Valley, Virginia. As a young child, she loved to sit at the piano in the church where her mother was the organist and pianist, imagining she was playing hymns to a congregation. “At age three, maybe four, / there was me / at the keys / of that church piano.” She dreamed of having her own piano one day. When her daddy found an old junkyard piano that he and her mother cleaned up, painted green, and gave to the nine-year-old Roberta, she was set on the path to achieving her even bigger dream: “Of a life / all wrapped up in / the majesty, / the magic / of music— / my treasure, / my gold.” Back matter of this soulful autobiography includes an author’s note with photographs and a timeline of career highlights. (PreK Up)
Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life. Jerry Pinkney. (2023). Little, Brown.
In this moving memoir, Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021) tells of his post-World
War II childhood experiences of growing up in a large, loving family on East Earlham Street, an all-Black block in Philadelphia. Jerry, who had school problems (unidentified dyslexia), was always drawing. Although drawing was the one thing he knew he was good at, dreaming of becoming an artist was not realistic. “And in the world in which I was living to be anything or go anywhere was not a dream that young Black boys often dared to have.” But, with encouragement from teachers and mentoring by newspaper comic-strip artist John Liney, who recognized his talents, Pinkney persisted in studying art and became one of the most celebrated children’s book illustrators of all time. The warm conversational tone of Pinkney’s narrative and the abundance of his rough sketchbook drawings makes Just Jerry a book to treasure along with all of his classic picture books (the covers of a few of these are shown in the “What Happened Next” epilogue). Back matter includes a timeline of key dates in Pinkney’s life and select accomplishments. (Gr 3 Up)
Make Way: The Story of Robert McCloskey, Nancy Schön, and Some Very Famous Ducklings. Angela Burke Kunkel. Illus. by Claire Keane. (2023). Random House Studio.
As a child, Robert McCloskey (1914-2003) carved and painted. Later, after studying art in Boston, he was told by a children’s book editor in New York City “not to be so serious.” Remembering feeding the ducks at the Boston Public Garden, McCloskey began an extensive study of mallards that resulted in his sepia-toned drawings in Make Way for Ducklings (1941). Nancy Schön (b. 1928) used art to escape being bullied at school. As an adult, after hearing about a child asking, “Mommy, where are the ducks?” on a visit to the Public Garden, she was inspired to sculpt a miniature parade of the ducks from Make Way for Ducklings. Learning about her project, McCloskey came to Boston to see it and, with his approval, Nancy Schön shaped and cast in bronze Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings. Claire Keane’s nostalgic digital illustrations match perfectly with Angela Burke Kunkel’s inviting text in this biography of McLCloskey, Schön. and the very famous ducklings that were installed in the Boston Public Garden in 1987. Back matter includes an author’s note with photos, a timeline, and a selected bibliography. (PreK Up)
Mary’s Idea. Chris Raschka. (2023). Greenwillow.
In his always innovative fashion, Chris Raschka creates an evocative ode to jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1920-1981). Artwork rendered in ink, oil pastel, and watercolor on a brown textured background features Mary’s hands, a keyboard, sheet music, and colorful swirls of music. The simple lyrical text with only a few words on each double-spread page and a repetition of the phrase “It was Mary’s idea” presents the life story of Mary from child prodigy to legendary jazz musician. “It was Mary’s idea to play // the piano at three. // It was Mary’s idea // to play the piano for me.” Mary always made her own decisions, including to stop playing the piano for a time before beginning her career again. “It was Mary’s idea // to start again, for people, for God, and me.” Back matter includes additional biographical information and a thought-provoking quote. (PreK Up)
Pitch Perfect and Persistent!: The Musical Debut of Amy Cheney Beach. Caitlin DeLems. Illus. by Alison Jay. (2023). Calkins Creek.
Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), the first successful woman composer in America, was born into a musical family, but when she sang an anthem with perfect pitch to the delight of a gathering of relatives and friends at age two, her strict, religious mother was worried. She wanted Amy to be a normal child. “No indulgence. No spectacle. And certainly, no piano!” Caitlin DeLems’s engaging text describing the little girl’s persistence in wanting to hear, think, and play music, which won out with the help of her aunt who put four-year-old Amy up on the piano bench, is complemented by Alison Jay’s distinctive artwork done with a quick-drying oil paint with crackle varnish. This engaging biography follows Amy through her music-filled childhood to her piano debut with a symphony at the Boston Music Hall at age 16 (Mamma consents reasoning it might help Amy attract a husband), which proved to be the beginning of her breaking the glass ceiling for women musicians and composers. Back matter includes an author’s note (with photographs), timeline, musical glossary, selected bibliography, and a “To Learn More About Amy Beach” section of websites and places to visit.
Rock, Rosetta, Rock! Roll, Rosetta, Roll!: Presenting Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock & Roll. Tonya Bolden. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. (2023). Harper.
Rosetta, a little girl “making downright mighty music, music, music” with a big guitar in tiny Cotton Plant, Arkansas, moved with her mother to Chicago where she “played, played, played” and had people clapping their hands, stamping their feet, and shouting as Mama preached in churches, at outside revivals, and on street corners. This little girl also had a big voice and began “belting out the rhythm-bound Gospel sound.” As an adult, Rosetta mixed Gospel music with boogie-woogie, jazz, swing, and the blues. She took her music into nightclubs including New York City’s Cotton Club, cut records for Decca, performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, had a concert at Carnegie Hall, and did a European tour. She “played, played, played--and sang! / as the fabulous, / flamboyant / Sister Rosetta Tharpe!” Tonya Bolden’s lively free verse text and R. Gregory Christie’s vibrant acrylic artwork full of movement create a fitting tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), the godmother of rock and roll. Back matter includes a timeline, author’s note, and sources. (PreK Up)
Tomfoolery!: Randolph Caldecott and the Rambunctious Coming-of-Age of Children’s Books. Michelle Markel. Illus. by Barbara McClintock. (2023). Chronicle.
In the 1850s, children’s books had pictures that were “stiff, full of pretty poses and cluttered scenery.” But Randolph Caldecott (1946-1886), who filled his sketchbook with drawings of playful animals as a child in Chester, England, grew up to become the artist who transformed picture books forever: “No frilly lines, no fussy background, no crowded pages—scene by scene the story tumbles forth like life.” Michelle Markel’s text is descriptive, lively, and child friendly. “He dips his nib in the ink . . . and TALLYHO!” Barbara McClintock’s artwork completes this beautifully designed biography of Randolph Caldecott. Some of the double-page spreads include reproductions of Caldecott’s drawings, and there is a full-color wordless spread of an illustration from The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1878). Back matter includes an identification of the reproductions of Caldecott’s own art and the pages on which they appear in Tomfoolery; annotations; notes on illustrated Victorian periodicals and the “big three” of toy book illustrators: Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway; Caldecott’s picture books listed by publication date; and a bibliography (books and articles). (PreK Up)
A Tulip in Winter: A Story About Folk Artist Maud Lewis. Kathy Stinson. Illus. by Lauren Soloy. (2023). Greystone Kids.
Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (1903-1970) struggled cheerfully throughout her life with undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis, which kept her small, affected her mobility, and caused her fingers and joints to swell. Once her mother gave Maud a paintbrush, however, she began to create colorful nature scenes. After the death of her parents, she was penniless and moved in with an aunt who wouldn’t let her paint (“Too messy”), so she left to become a live-in housekeeper (and, later, wife) to fish peddler Everett Lewis, who didn’t care about her physical limitations. Using leftover paint he scrounged from the dump and wharf, Maud transformed their tiny home into a work of art. Together, they sold fish and Maud’s nature creations painted on everything from trays to scraps of wood. Eventually her arthritis made it too difficult to walk or paint, and Everett pushed her in his wheelbarrow. Tiny Maud was buried in a child’s coffin, and their cottage is now housed inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Kathy Stinson’s lyrical text pairs beautifully with Lauren Soloy’s colorful, stylistic folk art. Back matter includes additional biographical information and notes from the author and illustrator. (PreK Up)
You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!: The Storied Life of Folk Artist Elijah Pierce. Chiquita Mullins Lee & Carmella Van Vleet. Illus. by Jennifer Mack-Watkins. (2023). Kokila.
When a father takes his young son for a haircut at Elijah Pierce’s barbershop in Columbus, Ohio, he tells him, “You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce!” While waiting for his turn, the boy draws with his new set of colored pencils, and Mr. Pierce shares how his uncle gave him a pocketknife and taught him to carve. He says, “I would turn wood into stories” and takes him on a tour of the wood art decorating the walls of his shop. The boy leaves the barbershop with an elephant Mr. Pierce has carved for him from a chunk of wood and is full of ideas for his own art projects. Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet’s engaging narrative for this picture book biography of African American folk artist Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) is accompanied by Jennifer Mack-Watkins’s vibrant illustrations done with Japanese woodblocks that incorporate collaged photographs of pieces of Elijah’s art. Back matter includes additional information on Elijah Pierce’s life, folk art, and honors; notes from the authors; and sections on where to see his work on exhibit and detailed information about Pierce’s art appearing in this book (PreK Up)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English at 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).