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
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).