Tag Archives: biography

PPBF – Yusra Swims

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, and as the 2020 Summer Olympics have been in the news this week, I thought this was a timely, new picture book biography to feature as a Perfect Picture Book.

Title: Yusra Swims

Written By: Julie Abery

Illustrated By: Sally Deng

Publisher/Date: Creative Editions/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: swimming, refugee, Olympics, Syria, biography, rhyming, persistence, hope, dreams

Opening:

Just a girl/With a dream./Olympic Games/Swimming team.

Brief Synopsis: The true story of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer, who fled Syria for Europe and who competed in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the Refugee Olympic Team and watch a short video featuring the athletes, including Yusra Mardini, who competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics;
  • Learn about the geography and rich history of Syria before the current conflicts;
  • Learn more about the refugee experience with materials from Amnesty International;
  • Yusra’s dream was to swim for her country in the Olympics. Do you have a dream? Describe your dream in words or pictures.

Why I Like this Book:

Yusra Swims is a hopeful story of one young woman’s persistence and courage to overcome overwhelming obstacles. Especially as we and our children navigate the uncertainties, difficulties, and fear during this unprecedented pandemic and global shutdown, I found it particularly heartening to learn about this talented and courageous young woman.

As a teenager, Yusra fled a war-torn region, she used her swimming skills to save fellow refugees when their overloaded boat lost its motor and began to sink, she resettled in Germany, despite, presumably, not knowing the language, and then she competed in the first Refugee Olympic Team in history. If Yusra doesn’t inspire all of us to use our talents to succeed and benefit others, I don’t know who could!

Abery relates Yusra’s story in short, rhyming text, which makes this an ideal picture book to share even with younger children. Deng’s blue-palette illustrations provide further context as we journey with Yusra to the Olympics.

A Note about Craft:

Aspiring writers often hear that agents and editors are not interested in rhyming text. And rhyming picture book biographies are few and far between. But rhyme works well in this case, and I applaud Abery for utilizing it to quicken the pace to match Yusra’s sport, swimming. It also enables readers to navigate the difficult parts of Yusra’s journey more quickly and focus sooner on the hopeful aspects of her life.

In one poignant spread, Deng adds a kid-relatable detail to the jettisoned possessions: a stuffed animal. My eyes focused on that immediately, and I think kids will be drawn to that, too.

Visit Julie Abery’s website to see more of her children’s books. See interior spreads from Yusra Swims and learn about Deng at her website.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

Perfect Pairing – Features the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

I’d planned to feature two new picture book biographies about Emily Dickinson today, before the pandemic upended the normalcy of most of our lives. Thankfully, I picked up one of these before our local library closed, and I have a copy of the other one.

May you find plenty of poetry on your bookshelves or via internet sources to bolster your spirits during this time of crisis! Stay healthy, stay home, and read!

Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

Author: Jane Yolen

Illustrator: Christine Davenier

Publisher/Date: Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt and Company/2020)

Ages: 6-8

Themes: Emily Dickinson, poetry, nature, writing

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Jane Yolen’s Emily Writes is an imagined and evocative picture book account of Emily Dickinson’s childhood poetic beginnings, featuring illustrations by Christine Davenier.

As a young girl, Emily Dickinson loved to scribble curlicues and circles, imagine new rhymes, and connect with the natural world around her. The sounds, sights, and smells of home swirled through her mind, and Emily began to explore writing and rhyming her thoughts and impressions. She thinks about the real and the unreal. Perhaps poems are the in-between.

This thoughtful spotlight on Emily’s early experimentations with poetry offers a unique window into one of the world’s most famous and influential poets.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson

Author: Jennifer Berne

Illustrator: Becca Stadtlander

Publisher/date: Chronicle Books/2020

Ages: 5-8

Themes: Emily Dickinson, biography, poetry, nature, writing

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

An inspiring and kid-accessible biography of one of the world’s most famous poets.

Emily Dickinson, who famously wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” is brought to life in this moving story. In a small New England town lives Emily Dickinson, a girl in love with small things—a flower petal, a bird, a ray of light, a word. In those small things, her brilliant imagination can see the wide world—and in her words, she takes wing. From celebrated children’s author Jennifer Berne comes a lyrical and lovely account of the life of Emily Dickinson: her courage, her faith, and her gift to the world. With Dickinson’s own inimitable poetry woven throughout, this lyrical biography is not just a tale of prodigious talent, but also of the power we have to transform ourselves and to reach one another when we speak from the soul.

Read a starred review at Shelf Awareness for Readers and read an interview with Berne at Kidlit411 (which is how I received a copy of this book. Thank you!).

I paired these books because they explore the life and writings of Emily Dickinson. In Emily Writes, Yolen explores Emily’s early childhood and envisions Emily creating scribbled poetry before she could form letters or words. On Wings of Words is a cradle-to-grave biography with Emily’s poetry woven into the narrative. Read together, these new picture books provide greater appreciation and understanding of the genius that is Emily Dickinson. Author’s Notes and other back matter in each book provide greater context about the life and writings of this iconic poet.

Looking for similar reads? See My Uncle Emily, by Jane Yolen.

 

 

Perfect Pairing – of Talented Female Voices

As our celebration of Women’s History Month continues, I’m pairing two new picture book biographies that feature cultural icons from the mid to late twentieth century.

Making their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe

Author: Vivian Kirkfield

Illustrator: Alleanna Harris

Publisher/Date: Little Bee Books/2020

Ages: 4-8

Themes: friendship, following dreams, helping others, social justice, biography, cultural icons, singing

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. On the outside, you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside, they were alike–full of hopes and dreams and plans of what might be.

Ella Fitzgerald’s velvety tones and shube-doobie-doos captivated audiences. Jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington couldn’t wait to share the stage with her, but still, Ella could not book a performance at one of the biggest clubs in town–one she knew would give her career its biggest break yet.

Marilyn Monroe dazzled on the silver screen with her baby blue eyes and breathy boo-boo-be-doos. But when she asked for better scripts, a choice in who she worked with, and a higher salary, studio bosses refused.

Two women whose voices weren’t being heard. Two women chasing after their dreams and each helping the other to achieve them. This is the inspiring, true story of two incredibly talented women who came together to help each other shine like the stars that they are.

Read a review at The Picture Book Buzz.

 

A Voice Named Aretha

Author: Katheryn Russell-Brown

Illustrator: Laura Freeman

Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books/2020

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, cultural icon, singer, African-American history, respect

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

From acclaimed author and illustrator pairing comes a beautiful picture book biography about the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and how she fought for respect throughout her life.

Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, a legend. But before she became a star, she was a shy little girl with a voice so powerful it made people jump up, sway, and hum along.

Raised in a house full of talking and singing, Aretha learned the values that would carry her through life–from her church choir in Detroit to stages across the world. When she moved to New York City to start her career, it took years of hard work before she had a hit song. In the turbulent 1960s, she sang about “Respect” and refused to perform before segregated audiences. The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha always remembered who she was and where she came from.

In this stirring biography of a true artistic and social icon, award-winning creators Katheryn Russell-Brown and Laura Freeman show young readers how Aretha’s talent, intelligence, and perseverance made her a star who will shine on for generations to come.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because they both recount the stories of women who were entertainment icons. While A Voice Named Aretha is almost a cradle-to-grave biography of this singing legend, Making Their Voices Heard is a dual biography focused on the friendship between Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Read together, I think these new biographies shed light on the struggles these female performers had to overcome to succeed.

 

Perfect Pairing – of Female Scientists

It’s March – Women’s History Month! I’m looking forward to celebrating by reading and pairing some recent picture book biographies of some fascinating women, including the scientists featured today.

Queen of Physics: How WuChien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

Author: Teresa Robeson

Illustrator: Rebecca Huang

Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books/2019

Ages: 5 and up

Themes: physics, #STEM, biography, immigrant, Women’s History, prejudice, perseverance

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Meet Wu Chien Shiung, famous physicist who overcame prejudice to prove that she could be anything she wanted.

When Wu Chien Shiung was born in China 100 years ago, most girls did not attend school; no one considered them as smart as boys. But her parents felt differently. Giving her a name meaning “Courageous Hero,” they encouraged her love of learning and science. This engaging biography follows Wu Chien Shiung as she battles sexism and racism to become what Newsweek magazine called the “Queen of Physics” for her work on beta decay. Along the way, she earned the admiration of famous scientists like Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer and became the first woman hired as an instructor by Princeton University, the first woman elected President of the American Physical Society, the first scientist to have an asteroid named after her when she was still alive, and many other honors.

Read a review by Kathy Halsey at Group Blog.

 

What Miss Mitchell Saw

Author: Hayley Barrett

Illustrator: Diana Sudyka

Publisher/date: Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: astronomy, #STEM, biography, Women’s History, perseverance

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Discover the amazing true story of Maria Mitchell, America’s first professional female astronomer.

Every evening, from the time she was a child, Maria Mitchell stood on her rooftop with her telescope and swept the sky. And then one night she saw something unusual—a comet no one had ever seen before! Miss Mitchell’s extraordinary discovery made her famous the world over and paved the way for her to become America’s first professional female astronomer.

Gorgeously illustrated by Diana Sudyka, this moving picture book about a girl from humble beginnings who became a star in the field of astronomy is sure to inspire budding scientists everywhere.

Read a review at Gathering Books.

I paired these books because they recount the lives of two female scientists who were trailblazers in their fields. Although Maria Mitchell received more recognition in her field in the 19th century than the 20th century physicist Wu Chien Shiung did in her field, both battled prejudice in their male-dominated professions, both had parents who kindled and supported their love of science, and both endured to excel in their chosen fields and become faculty at prestigious American universities.

Looking for similar reads? See any of Laurie Wallmark’s excellent picture book biographies of female scientists.

 

 

Perfect Pairing – of Picture Books about African-American Migrations

In small numbers, while slavery held sway in the southern states, and in large numbers, in the early to mid-twentieth century, African Americans headed north. Today’s pairing explores these journeys:

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.

Overground Railroad

Author: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrator: James E. Ransome

Publisher/Date: Holiday House/2020

Ages: 4-8

Themes: African-American history, the Great Migration, moving, train journey

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Ruth Ellen’s odyssey on the New York Bound Silver Meteor is the start of a new life up North that she can’t begin to imagine in this gorgeously illustrated picture book.

In poems, illustrated with collage art, a perceptive girl tells the story of her train journey from North Carolina to New York City as part of the Great Migration. Each leg of the trip brings new revelations as scenes out the window of folks working in fields give way to the Delaware River, the curtain that separates the colored car is removed, and glimpses of the freedom and opportunity the family hopes to find come into view.

Overground Railroad offers a window into a child’s experience of the Great Migration from the award-winning creators behind Finding LangstonBefore She was HarrietBenny Goodman & Teddy Wilson, and Just a Lucky So and So.

Read my review.

I paired these books because they recount two eras of black migration from the south to northern states. In Before She Was Harriet, Cline-Ransome recounts the life of the most famous of the underground railroad conductors, Harriet Tubman. In Overground Railroad, Cline-Ransome recounts the fictional story of a young girl and her family who flee the poverty and segregation of the 20th century south to find a better life in the north. Reading these books together shows how these journeys were similar quests to find freedom, from the bondage of slavery and the bondage of the sharecropping system, poverty, and segregation.

 

 

Perfect Pairing – Explores a History-Making Photographer

This coming Sunday, a new exhibition opens at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City: Dorothea Lange, Words & Pictures. To help get ready, I found two picture books about this special photographer and the iconic photograph that became the face of the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression

Author: Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrator: Sarah Green

Publisher/Date: Albert Whitman & Company/2017

Ages: 4-8

Themes: photography, Great Depression, persistence, social activism, overcoming adversity, biography

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Before she raised her lens to take her most iconic photo, Dorothea Lange took photos of the downtrodden from bankers in once-fine suits waiting in breadlines, to former slaves, to the homeless sleeping on sidewalks. A case of polio had left her with a limp and sympathetic to those less fortunate. Traveling across the United States, documenting with her camera and her fieldbook those most affected by the stock market crash, she found the face of the Great Depression. In this picture book biography, Carole Boston Weatherford with her lyrical prose captures the spirit of the influential photographer.

Read a review at Gathering Books.

 

Ruby’s Hope: A Story of How the Famous “Migrant Mother” Photograph Became the Face of the Great Depression

Author: Monica Kulling

Illustrator: Sarah Dvojack

Publisher/Date: Page Street Kids/2019

Ages: 6-10

Themes: Great Depression, migrant, Dust Bowl, photography

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era “Migrant Mother” photograph is an icon of American history. Behind this renowned portrait is the story of a family struggling against all odds to survive.

Dust storms and dismal farming conditions force young Ruby’s family to leave their home in Oklahoma and travel to California to find work. As they move from camp to camp, Ruby sometimes finds it hard to hold on to hope. But on one fateful day, Dorothea Lange arrives with her camera and takes six photographs of the young family. When one of the photographs appears in the newspaper, it opens the country’s eyes to the reality of the migrant workers’ plight and inspires an outpouring of much needed support.

Bleak yet beautiful illustrations depict this fictionalized story of a key piece of history, about hope in the face of hardship and the family that became a symbol of the Great Depression.

Read a review at Miss Marple’s Musings.

I paired these books because they explore Dorothea Lange’s life and the creation of this iconic photograph, as a biography, in the case of Dorothea Lange, and in a fictional account, Ruby’s Hope, that posits how Lange may have met the Migrant Mother and photographed her. Read together, I think these picture books provide a fuller picture of this famous photographer and her most famous photograph. And for those who write picture books, reading these side by side as mentor texts is a fascinating way to explore how best to tell a person’s story.

PPBF – Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War

I recently saw a reference to the latest picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh. As we’ve just celebrated Remembrance Sunday, or Veterans Day here in the US, originally celebrated to mark the end of World War I, I thought it was the perfect time to review this Perfect Picture Book:

Title: Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War

Written & Illustrated By: Duncan Tonatiuh

Publisher/Date: Abrams Books for Young Readers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 6-8 (and older)

Themes/Topics: Latinx, military service, biography, #OwnVoices, World War I

Opening:

“Greaser!”

Luz (looz) ran toward the boy and tackled him to the ground. Luz had had enough. ¡Ya basta! Why did they call him names? Why were those kids mean to him just because his family had come from Mexico?

Brief Synopsis:

The story of de la Luz Sáenz, a Mexican-American teacher who served as a soldier in France in World War I, who returned home to Texas to work for Mexican-American rights, and who co-founded the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn more about LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and its founding;
  • Has anyone ever called you a name or otherwise been mean to you? How did you feel? What did you do?
  • Luz kept a diary during World War I that shared what he experienced and felt. Try keeping a diary or journal to record your thoughts and reflections.

Why I Like this Book:

The latest picture book by award-winning illustrator/author Tonatiuh, Soldier for Equality, provides wonderful insight into the life and times of an American of Mexican descent in the early part of the 20th century. Although the narrative begins during Luz’s childhood, much of the book records his experiences as an adult and especially as a soldier during World War I.

Although I wasn’t surprised to learn that Latinos were discriminated against in Texas and in the military at that time, nor do I think that children reading this will be, I was saddened to read how this discrimination affected Mexican-Americans living in Texas and how these loyal men’s service was treated as less valuable than that of white men.

But Tonatiuh doesn’t leave readers feeling sad or angry. Rather, he shows how Luz channeled his frustrations into a passionate fight for equality by teaching Latinx children and adults to read, by joining with other veterans to fight for Latino veteran rights, and by joining with other like-minded individuals to form the League of United Latin American Citizens in 1929. LULAC, which still exists, is “the oldest and most widely respected Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States”, per the organization’s website.

As Tonatiuh notes in the Author’s Note, Luz is a “largely unsung hero whose fight for equality is still alive”. I think it’s wonderful that Tonatiuh has brought Luz’s story to a new generation of children, especially Latinx children, and I hope that reading this biography will inspire this generation to continue the fight for equal rights, liberty and justice.

Tonatiuh’s distinctive, earth-toned illustrations complement the text well, and, for me, rendered the combat scenes a little less disturbing (note, though, that these could scare a younger child).

Back matter includes the Author’s Note, a select timeline of the US and Luz’s involvement in World War I and of LULAC, a bibliography, an index, and a glossary of Spanish terms.

A Note about Craft:

In the Author’s Note, Tonatiuh reveals that he first learned about Luz from a history professor at the University of Texas in Austin who had translated Luz’s wartime diary. A diary or journal is a wonderful source to learn about historical eras and a person’s reflections about them, especially when it is paired with other sources. That Luz not only kept the diary but that he also was a participant in the fight for equality and justice renders him an especially important figure for children to learn about. Thankfully, Tonatiuh distilled these adult-focused sources into a story for children. And while this isn’t entirely a cradle to grave biography, Tonatiuh begins it with a scene from Luz’s childhood, showing how even a child can stand up for his or her rights. As Tonatiuh quotes Luz’s father saying, “don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed. You should always be proud of who you are, mijo.”

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!