Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger & 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.
As Glenn as Can Be. Sarah Ellis. Illus. by Nancy Vo. (2022). Groundwood.
This intriguing picture book biography showcases Canadian child prodigy and celebrated composer and classical pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982). The dust jacket and book cover and the front and back endpapers present strikingly contrasting images that complement Sarah Ellis’ rhythmic narrative in which she describes Glenn Gould’s likes and dislikes of just about everything as both a child and adult. For example, he liked to learn things, but disliked school, and he loved playing the piano, but hated giving concerts. Ellis’ text clearly presents Gould as an eccentric who wanted to make music in his own way. Back matter includes an author’s note, books for further reading, and information about listening to some of Gould’s famous recordings. As Glen as Can Be encourages children to accept others and to identify their own perceptions of the world and to understand how they fit within it.
Beautiful Useful Things: What William Morris Made. Beth Kephart. Illus. by Melodie Stacey. (2022). Cameron Kids.
This beautifully designed book examines the life and work of William Morris (1834-1896), who wanted to honor the beauty of nature that he loved as a child by “making beautiful useful things” as an adult. A key figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Great Britain, Morris designed textiles, wallpaper, tapestry, rugs, stained-glass windows, and other handmade works of art featuring patterns from nature while factories were producing cheap, utilitarian things. Near the end of his life, Morris also created beautiful books, handcrafted one at a time. Back matter for this biography with a lyrical text and illustrations inspired by William Morris’ designs includes an image of Strawberry Thief, one of Morris’ fabrics with a motif of birds, flowers, and fruit; an author’s note; an illustrator’s note; and sources.
Bottle Tops: The Art of El Anatsui. Alison Goldberg. Illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. (2022). Lee & Low.
Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (b. 1944) creates works of art from used objects, “materials with a history.” He believes, “If you touch something, you leave a charge on it and anybody else touching it connects with you, in a way.” Alison Goldberg’s engaging text and Elizabeth Zunon’s colorful illustrations rendered in paint and cut-paper collage show the involved process El Anatsui follows in creating bottle top sculptures, his most famous works of art that can be seen all over the world. Back matter includes a double-page spread with photographs of El Anatsui and two of his sculptures, text sources, quotation sources, identification of featured artwork, and an art activity using recycled materials. This would be a great book to read aloud in art class or when discussing reducing, reusing, and recycling.
Celia Planted a Garden: The Story Celia Thaxter and Her Island Garden. Phyllis Root & Gary D. Schmidt. Illus. by Melissa Sweet. (2022). Candlewick.
The life story of poet Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894) is presented in this picture book biography in which lines from her writing are featured. “The very act of planting a seed in the earth has in it to me something beautiful.” Melissa Sweet’s colorful illustration done in watercolor, gouache, and mixed media encourage the reader to examine and appreciate the beauty of the floral blossoms, birds, fish, and even the storms off the coast of Maine where Celia created island gardens as a child and an adult. Back matter includes a note on Celia Laighton Thaxter, a timeline listing the publications of her numerous poetry collections and detailing both the highlights and harsher realities of her life, and a bibliography.
Covered in Color: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom. Elisa Boxer. Illus. by Susanna Chapman. (2022). Abrams.
Covered in Color celebrates the artistic genius of Bulgarian-born Christo (1935-2020), who grew up under Nazi occupation and then Communist control. In art school, he resisted the rigid rules that forced artists to paint propaganda and, at the age of 21, he fled to France where he began to create imaginative sculptures. Christo met and married Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) in Paris, and the couple moved to New York City. A lively text and stunning mixed-media illustrations detail how they worked together to create the public art installations they became known for by wrapping and surrounding monuments, buildings, coast lines, and even islands with colorful fabrics. Back matter includes an extensive author’s note; an artist’s note; captioned photographic images of The Gates (February 2005, New York City) and L’Arc de Triomphe (September 2021, Paris); notes on quotations; and selected sources.
Dazzlin’ Dolly: The Songwriting, Hit-Singing, Guitar-Picking Dolly Parton. Suzanne Slade. Illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. (2022). Calkins Creek.
Dolly Parton’s life story is presented in this biography written in a folksy, Southern dialect. Born into a poor family in the Tennessee mountains, Dolly Parton (b. 1946) used the gifts she was born with to become an award-winning country music star and a philanthropist. Edwin Fotheringham’s digitally created illustrations focus on key events in her childhood and early career. Throughout the book, Dolly talks about a bully called “stage fright.” She says that she “squashed that stage fright like a pesky June bug.” Young readers may be unfamiliar with this popular musician, but her life story may inspire them to follow their own dreams despite roadblocks in their lives. The back matter includes a timeline that includes the mention of some of her songs; an end note; and a bibliography of books, videos, websites, audio, and newspaper/magazine articles.
Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son. John Parra. (2022). Paula Wiseman.
In this autobiographical picture book, John Parra tells the story of his childhood experience of spending a day working with his papi, a landscape contractor, and his helper, Javier, mowing, trimming, and raking in a yard; selecting plants at a nursery; taking clippings and branches to the dump; and making plans for landscaping a client’s overgrown yard. Although John is bothered by being ignored when he waves to a classmate who is watching them working in his neighbor’s yard, he learns that his father loves his work and is proud of it. This experience makes John determined “to use his art to tell the stories of hardworking, passionate people who make the world more beautiful.” The endpapers for Parra’s memoir with colorful, detailed illustrations created with acrylic paints are blueprints of a landscape design. Also available as Cultivando a un artista (2022).
Hope Is an Arrow: The Story of Lebanese American Poet Kahlil Gibran. Cory McCarthy. Illus. by Ekua Holmes. (2022). Candlewick.
As an Arab child growing up in Lebanon, Gibran Kahlil Gibran was aware of the religious conflicts that divided the country; as an immigrant living in Boston with his mother and three siblings, he saw the division between the wealthy and the poor in America. His “secret hope” was to find a way of guiding people to come together through love and understanding in spite of their differences. As Cory McCarthy eloquently states, “Kahlil Gibran became an arrow shot true, an arrow made from the strength of Lebanese cedars and feathered by the spirit of American,” when he shared his message in The Prophet (1923). Ekua Holmes’ vibrant collage-and-acrylic artwork complements McCarthy’s poetic prose that incorporates quotes from Khalil Gibran. Back matter includes a source note, additional stories from Gibran’s life, and a bibliography.
A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexicah Word Painters. Duncan Tonatiuh. (2022). Abrams.
With hand-drawn, digitally collaged artwork inspired by Mesoamerican codices and a lyrical prose that includes Nahuatl words, Duncan Tonatiuh celebrates the importance of books in preserving Indigenous languages, stories, and traditions. “Our world, my brother, is an amoxtlalpan [a land of books],” says a Mexicah girl who is telling him about the important work of their parents as tlahcuilohqueh, painters of words. She explains to her brother (and to readers) their parents’ step-by-step creation of amoxtin, books that tell the stories of their god, people, and history, and says that they should dream about these amoxtin as they sleep and anticipate attending the flower festival where the villagers will be able to look at a book, an amoxtli, and hear a reader sing the words their parents painted. Back matter includes a glossary (with pronunciation guide, an extensive author’s note, a bibliography, and websites.
On Her Wings: The Story of Toni Morrison. Jerdine Nolen. Illus. by James E. Ransome. (2022). Paula Wiseman.
Jerdine Nolen tells the life story of Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1993), who was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford and took the nickname Toni when she was a student at Howard University. While working as an editor in New York, she began writing stories “about her people, Black people.” Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Toni Morrison’s storytelling power is reflected in her many novels for adults and books for children (written with her son, Slade Morrison). James E. Ransome incorporates portraits of Morrison as she aged in his expressive watercolor-and-collage illustrations. Back matter includes an author’s note and an extensive “Learn More About Toni Morrison” section (her books, quotes, films and videos, articles of interest, and a timeline of selected achievements and information).
The Poem Forest: Poet W. S. Merwin and the Palm Tree Forest He Grew from Scratch. Carrie Fountain Illus. by Chris Turnham. (2022). Candlewick.
Carrie Fountain’s lyrical narrative complemented by Chris Turnham’s expressive, digitally created artwork tells the life story of prolific poet W. S. Merwin (1927-2019), who won two Pulitzer Prizes and was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2010. William Stanley didn’t like things “straightened out.” For him, “writing poetry was like visiting a wild place.” Eventually moving to Hawaii, William Stanley found a spot in Maui that was labeled a wasteland but for him was “a straightened-out place longing to grow wild.” He planted a palm tree every day during the rainy season to heal the earth. Eventually he and his wife created a conservancy abundant with a wide variety of palm trees, including endangered species from around the world. The Merwin Conservancy became a place that “will never be straightened out.” Back matter includes an author’s note and W. S. Merwin’s poem, “Palm.”
The Snail. Emily Hughes. (2022). Chronicle.
“Isamu was American; / Isamu was Japanese. / Isamu was an artist. / As an artist, he wanted to give gifts to the world.” Emily Hughes pays tribute to Isamu Noguchi (1904-1998), who felt he was an outsider in both countries. He had homes in New York City and in Mure, Japan, but thought of himself as a snail, living in his shell. When his two countries were at war, he felt neither American nor Japanese and resolved to be an artist only. With an exquisite combination of words and images, Hughes tells the story of Isamu Noguchi brilliance as a sculptor. Using different materials, he created works of art from large public installations to delicate miniature pieces. She provides a richly detailed account of Noguchi’s akari, “sculptures that held light within” and ends her author’s note with the words, “When Isamu made akari, he gave us a gift of love.”
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger is an assistant professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Department of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. 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).