Category Archives: Perfect Pairing

Perfect Pairing of African-American Heroes

Regular readers may notice a theme these past few weeks – I’ve been reading, and featuring, many picture book biographies. Not only do I enjoy learning about the past through these informative picture books, but I’m reading to learn more about the genre as I research and write picture book biographies, too. And as you read this, I’m attending a Highlights Foundation non-fiction master class with, among others, the author of these two fascinating biographies.

Before She Was Harriet

Author: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrator: James E. Ransome

Publisher/Date: Holiday House Publishing, Inc./2017

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, African-American history, women’s history, slavery, underground railroad

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A lush and lyrical biography of Harriet Tubman, written in verse and illustrated by an award-winning artist.
We know her today as Harriet Tubman, but in her lifetime she was called by many names. As General Tubman she was a Union spy. As Moses she led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As Minty she was a slave whose spirit could not be broken. An evocative poem and opulent watercolors come together to honor a woman of humble origins whose courage and compassion make her larger than life.
A Junior Library Guild Selection

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

 

Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass

Author: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrator: James E. Ransome

Publisher/Date: A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/2012

Ages: 5-8

Themes: biography, African-American history, slavery, literacy

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The inspirational, true story of how Frederick Douglass found his way to freedom one word at a time.
This picture book biography chronicles the youth of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent African American figures in American history. Douglass spent his life advocating for the equality of all, and it was through reading that he was able to stand up for himself and others. Award-winning husband-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome present a moving and captivating look at the young life of the inspirational man who said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because they are biographies of two famous 19th century African-Americans who escaped slavery and worked to abolish it. Although written by the same author, their stories are shared in very different ways. In Before She Was Harriet, Cline-Ransome relates the life of Harriet Tubman in verse, in reverse chronological order, beginning, and ending, at old age. Cline-Ransome utilizes names, titles and roles to describe Harriet during the distinct phases of her life in this life-spanning biography. In Words Set Me Free, Cline-Ransome uses first-person point-of-view to recount a short period in the life of Frederick Douglass, when he learned to read and shared that skill with fellow slaves. Despite the different approaches, both picture books reveal pivotal moments in the lives of these iconic figures.

 

Perfect Pairing – of Artist Biographies

I love reading biographies, and when they feature the lives of artists, including illustrations that mimic the work of artists, they’re beautiful to read, too.

Out of this World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington

Author: Michelle Markel

Illustrator: Amanda Hall

Publisher/Date: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, female artist, surrealism, refugee

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Ever since she was a little girl, Leonora Carrington loved to draw on walls, in books, on paper—and she loved the fantastic tales her grandmother told that took her to worlds that shimmered beyond this one, where legends became real.

Leonora’s parents wanted her to become a proper English lady, but there was only one thing she wanted, even if it was unsuitable: to become an artist. In London, she discovered a group of artists called surrealists, who were stunning the world with their mysterious creations. This was the kind of art she had to make. This was the kind of person she had to be.

From life in Paris creating art alongside Max Ernst to Mexico, where she met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Leonora’s life became intertwined with the powerful events and people that shaped the twentieth century.

Out of This World is the fascinating and stunningly illustrated story of Leonora Carrington, a girl who made art out of her imagination and created some of the most enigmatic and startling works of the last eighty years.

Read my review.

Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art

Author: Barb Rosenstock

Illustrator: Mary Grandpré

Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf/2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, modern art, refugee, Judaism

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A gorgeous, expressive picture-book biography of Marc Chagall by the Caldecott Honor team behind The Noisy Paint Box.

Through the window, the student sees . . .
His future–butcher, baker, blacksmith, but turns away.
A classmate sketching a face from a book. His mind blossoms.
The power of pictures. He draws and erases, dreams in color while Papa worries.
A folder of pages laid on an art teacher’s desk. Mama asks, Does this boy have talent?
Pursed lips, a shrug, then a nod, and a new artist is welcomed. 
His brave heart flying through the streets, on a journey unknowable.

Known for both his paintings and stained-glass windows, Marc Chagall rose from humble beginnings to become one of the world’s most renowned artists. Admired for his use of color and the powerful emotion in his work, Chagall led a career that spanned decades and continents, and he never stopped growing. This lyrical narrative shows readers, through many different windows, the pre-WWI childhood and wartime experiences that shaped Chagall’s path.

From the same team behind the Caldecott Honor Book The Noisy Paint Box, which was about the artist Kandinksy, Through the Window is a stunning book that, through Chagall’s life and work, demonstrates how art has the power to be revolutionary.

Read my review.

I paired these books because both feature artists who defied familial and societal expectations to fulfill their dreams of creating gorgeous art. They also both left their homelands to achieve artistic success. And while readers may be more familiar with the work of Marc Chagall, Leonora Carrington was a gifted artist whose work remains popular today.

Looking for similar reads?

See, Vincent Can’t Sleep: Van Gogh Paints the Night Sky (Rosenstock/GrandPré, 2017), The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Rosenstock/GrandPré, 2014).

Perfect Pairing – a Triple Treat!

It’s a special week! Not just because we celebrate a national holiday on Thursday, fire crackers and all, and not just because my music-loving son celebrates a birthday, but because for the first and maybe only time, I’m “pairing” three picture books! Strike up the band – you’re in for a triple treat!

 

God Bless America: The Story of an Immigrant Named Irving Berlin

Author: Adah Nuchi

Illustrator: Rob Polivka

Publisher/Date: Disney Hyperion/2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, composer, refugee, immigrant, patriotism, music, singing, Judaism

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

An inspiring portrait of an immigrant and the gift he gave his new home.
Persecuted as Jews, Izzy Baline and his family emigrated from Russia to New York, where he fell in love with his new country. He heard music everywhere and was full to bursting with his own. Izzy’s thump-two-three, ting-a-ling, whee tunes soon brought him acclaim as the sought-after songwriter Irving Berlin. He ignited the imaginations of fellow countrymen and women with his Broadway and Hollywood numbers, crafting tunes that have become classics we still sing today.
But when darker times came and the nation went to war, it was time for Irving to compose a new kind of song:
boom-rah-rah song.
A big brass belter.
A loud heart-melter.
A song for America.
And so “God Bless America” was born, the heart swelling standard that Americans have returned to again and again after its 1918 composition.
This is the tale of how a former refugee gave America one of its most celebrated patriotic songs. With stirring, rhythmic text by Adah Nuchi and delightful, energetic art by Rob Polivka, readers will be ready to hum along to this exuberant picturebook.

Read a review in The Jewish Book Council.

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

Author: Nancy Churnin

Illustrator: James Rey Sanchez

Publisher/Date: Creston Books/2018

Ages: 7-12

Themes: biography, composer, refugee, immigrant, patriotism, music, singing, Judaism

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Irving Berlin came to the United States as a refugee from Tsarist Russia, escaping a pogrom that destroyed his village. Growing up on the streets of the lower East Side, the rhythms of jazz and blues inspired his own song-writing career. Starting with his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Berlin created the soundtrack for American life with his catchy tunes and irresistible lyrics. With “God Bless America,” he sang his thanks to the country which had given him a home and a chance to express his creative vision.

Read my review.

Write On, Irving Berlin!

Author: Leslie Kimmelman

Illustrator: David C. Gardner

Publisher/Date: Sleeping Bear Press/2018

Ages: 6-9

Themes: biography, composer, immigrant, patriotism, music, singing, Judaism

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

2019 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Younger Readers 2018 Eureka! California Reading Association Honor Book Award
Escaping persecution for being Jewish, the Baline family fled Russia and arrived by ship in New York City harbor in September 1893. Little Israel Isidore Baline is only five years old. After arriving at Ellis Island, the first stop for all immigrants, Israel and his family are ready to begin a new life in America. His family settles in the Lower East Side and soon Israel (now nicknamed Izzy) starts school. And while he learns English, he is not a very good student. According to his teachers he daydreams and sings in class. But while these may not be traits that are helpful in the classroom, these are wonderful tools for a budding singer and composer. And by the time that Izzy (now known as Irving) is a young man, he is well on his way to becoming one of the most well-known composers in America. This vivid picture-book biography examines the life of Irving Berlin, the distinguished artist whose songs, including “God Bless America,” continue to be popular today.

Read a review in The Jewish Book Council.

I “paired” these books because they recount the life and music of the composer of “God Bless America”. Although all are “cradle-to-grave” biographies, and although they feature the iconic Berlin song, I loved reading the three together, as I appreciated the various nuances: Nuchi utilizes onomatopoeia to achieve musicality in the text; Churnin begins her exploration as Berlin and his family are sailing away from Russia and towards America and references Berlin’s inclusion of Jewish prayer in the melody; and Kimmelman, who also introduces the tragic scene in Russia at the outset, repeats the phrase, “God bless America” throughout the text.

And while the reason for three picture book biographies published virtually simultaneously may be the 100th anniversary of Berlin’s composition, I think it’s important to consider other aspects of Berlin’s life that resonate today, such as his status as refugee and immigrant and the important role his Jewish faith played in life and music.

I am indebted to Maria Marshall, who reviews picture books and interviews authors and illustrators at The Picture Book Buzz, for alerting me to the existence of these three biographies and for her fabulous interview with the three authors. See a wonderful review of these books by Marjorie Ingall in The Tablet.

Perfect Pairing – of Chocolate-filled Picture Books

School ends this week in much of the northeast, where I currently live. To celebrate, I think chocolate is in order. I hope you agree!

Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate, From Farm to Family 

Author & Illustrator: Elizabeth Zunon

Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Childrens Books/May 2019

Ages: 3-6

Themes: grandparents, chocolate, family history

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This beautifully illustrated story connects past and present as a girl bakes a chocolate cake with her father and learns about her grandfather harvesting cacao beans in West Africa.
Chocolate is the perfect treat, everywhere!
As a little girl and her father bake her birthday cake together, Daddy tells the story of her Grandpa Cacao, a farmer from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. In a land where elephants roam and the air is hot and damp, Grandpa Cacao worked in his village to harvest cacao, the most important ingredient in chocolate. “Chocolate is a gift to you from Grandpa Cacao,” Daddy says. “We can only enjoy chocolate treats thanks to farmers like him.” Once the cake is baked, it’s ready to eat, but this isn’t her only birthday present. There’s a special surprise waiting at the front door . . .

Read my review.

 

No Monkeys, No Chocolate

Authors: Melissa Stewart and Allen Young

Illustrator: Nicole Wong

Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge/2013

Ages: 5-8

Themes: chocolate, non-fiction, nature

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Everyone loves chocolate, right? But how many people actually know where chocolate comes from? How it’s made? Or that monkeys do their part to help this delicious sweet exist?
This delectable dessert comes from cocoa beans, which grow on cocoa trees in tropical rain forests. But those trees couldn’t survive without the help of a menagerie of rain forest critters: a pollen-sucking midge, an aphid-munching anole lizard, brain-eating coffin fly maggots—they all pitch in to help the cocoa tree survive. A secondary layer of text delves deeper into statements such as “Cocoa flowers can’t bloom without cocoa leaves . . . and maggots,” explaining the interdependence of the plants and animals in the tropical rain forests. Two wise-cracking bookworms appear on every page, adding humor and further commentary, making this book accessible to readers of different ages and reading levels.
Back matter includes information about cocoa farming and rain forest preservation, as well as an author’s note.

Read a review at The Classroom Bookshelf.

I paired these books because they discuss aspects of chocolate production. In Grandpa Cacao, the emphasis is on the people involved in growing and harvesting cacao beans, in particular the main character’s grandfather in West Africa. In No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the emphasis is on the growth of cocoa trees in the rainforest and the interaction of the many rainforest creatures that enable these trees to continue to grow. Read together, readers learn about the origins of a favorite food.

Perfect Pairing – Heads to the Hen House

I think we all know the story of the little red hen. But have you seen these two recent twists on the traditional tale?

 

Holy Squawkamole! Little Red Hen Makes Guacamole 

Author: Susan Wood

Illustrator: Laura González

Publisher/Date: Sterling Books/2019

Ages: 3 and up

Themes: fractured folktale, hard work, self-reliance, persistence, Spanish words

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This tasty take on the classic Little Red Hen story has a deliciously spicy twist! 
Yum, guacamole! That’s what Little Red Hen craves, and she could use some help gathering and mashing the ingredients. So she asks her friends, including an armadillo, snake, and iguana, to lend a hand. Everyone just says “no.” But after Little Red Hen works hard to make the scrumptious fresh guac, all the animals want a taste. In a fun departure from the original tale, Little Red Hen cooks up a comeuppance for the slackers that they’ll never forget!

Read a review by Susanna Leonard Hill.

The Little Green Hen

Author & Illustrator: Alison Murray

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2019 (originally published by the Watts Publishing Group, Great Britain/2018)

Ages: 2-5

Themes: environment, helping others, fractured folktale

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A fun-filled retelling of The Little Red Hen with important messages about caring for our environment and working together!

Read a review at New York Journal of Books.

I paired these books because they are timely and ingenious takes on a traditional tale. Set in Mexico, Holy Squawkamole! tells the tale of the red hen (gallinita roja) who needs help making guacamole. As in the original tale, her friends won’t help until she teaches them a lesson. In The Little Green Hen, the hen tends her apple tree home and establishes an orchard with the help of a dog, sparrow and squirrel. But other animals refuse to help, until disaster strikes, and they learn the lesson of caring for the environment. I love how both authors updated the original tale by setting it in a new locale, Mexico and an apple tree, and adding timely twists, the addition of Spanish terms and a Mexican food in Holy Squawkamole! and an environmental theme in Little Green Hen.

 

 

Perfect Pairing – of Stone Lions on the Move

When I recently reviewed Renato and the Lion, I started thinking about other picture books featuring lions who came to life. Surprisingly, there are a few of them. Perhaps there’s some truth to these stories after all!

 

Renato and the Lion 

Author & Illustrator: Barbara DiLorenzo

Publisher/Date: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group/2017

Ages: 5-7

Themes: lion sculpture, war, art, national treasures, refugee, imagination, intergenerational story

Short Synopsis (from the publisher’s website):

The touching, magical story of a boy in a war-torn country and the stone lion that rescues him. 
Renato loves his home in Florence, Italy. He loves playing with his friends in the Piazza della Signoria. He loves walking home by the beautiful buildings and fountains with his father in the evenings. And he especially loves the stone lion who seems to smile at him from a pedestal in the piazza. The lion makes him feel safe.
But one day his father tells him that their family must leave. Their country is at war, and they will be safer in America. Renato can only think of his lion. Who will keep him safe?
With luminous watercolor paintings, Barbara DiLorenzo captures the beauty of Florence in this heartwarming and ultimately magical picture book.

Read my review.

The Stone Lion

Author: Margaret Wild

Illustrator: Ritva Voutila

Publisher/Date: Little Hare Books, an imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont/2014

Ages: 3-5

Themes: lion sculpture, homelessness, imagination, empathy

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Sometimes statues are granted a chance to become warm, breathing creatures. The stone lion has only one dream – to run, pounce and leap in the park across from where he sits. But one snowy night, when a baby is abandoned at his paws, he is compelled to think differently.

Read a review at Gathering Books.

I paired these books because both deal with difficult subjects and include a lion sculpture that comes alive. In Renato and the Lion, Renato’s beloved marble lion transports him through occupied Florence, Italy, during World War II, as Renato and his father try to protect treasured art from the Nazis and war. Told from the perspective of the lion, The Stone Lion recounts how a lion sculpture learns to feel and empathize with two homeless children and uses its one opportunity to come alive to save them. In both books, I think, the magic of sculptures coming alive softens the difficult subject matter and makes it more accessible to children.

Looking for similar reads?

See The Night Library by David Zeltser/Raul Colón (Random House/2019) and Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude by Josh Funk/Stevie Lewis (Henry Holt & Co./2018).

Perfect Pairing – of Multicultural Families

I love celebrations of family, especially when, as in these two picture books, the families embrace cultural traditions from across the world.

Gondra’s Treasure

Author: Linda Sue Park

Illustrator: Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: dragons, family, being yourself, multicultural

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Gondra, a little dragon with an Eastern dragon dad and a Western dragon mom, celebrates her uniqueness in this sparkling collaboration between Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park and rising star artist Jennifer Black Reinhardt.
Gondra has inherited traits from both her eastern (Asian) dragon dad and western (European) dragon mom and enjoys them all. She’s especially happy that she’s a combination of both. Cheerful banter and hilariously adorable dragon portrayals present a warm, appealing family portrait. The beautiful and fanciful illustrations are rich in whimsical details that invite repeated readings.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews and an interview by Reinhardt of Park at Picture Book Builders.

 

Maisie’s Scrapbook

Author: Samuel Narh

Illustrator: Jo Loring-Fisher

Publisher/Date: Lantana Publishing/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: family, multicultural, being yourself

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

As the seasons turn, Maisie rides her bull in and out of Dada’s tall tales. Her Mama wears linen and plays the viola. Her Dada wears kente cloth and plays the marimba. They come from different places, but they hug her in the same way. And most of all, they love her just the same. A joyful celebration of a mixed-race family and the love that binds us all together.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because both feature multicultural families and children celebrating the attributes they inherit from both parents. In Gondra’s Treasure, young Gondra, a dragon, inherits her Western mother’s fire-breathing ability and her Eastern father’s mist-creating ability, to become, what her parents term, a unique treasure. I love how Park uses the differing myths about dragons prevalent in Asia and Europe to illustrate the beauty that results when these traditions come together. In Masie’s Scrapbook, young Maisie’s father regales her with tales from his native Africa, her mother serenades her with the viola, but both love her the same, as is evident in the scrapbook she keeps of a special year in this loving family. While one of these picture books features a family of mythical animals and the other features humans, I think the pair show the love and joy that results when parents share their cultures with their children.