Tag Archives: biography

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!

Perfect Pairing – of Fearless Female Flyers

Today is the 103rd anniversary of a daring flight by Ruth Law, a female pilot and the subject of one of today’s perfectly paired picture books. As so many Americans anticipate holiday flights next week, I thought it would be interesting to look back to the dawn of aviation, and the roles two courageous female pilots played in that history.

 

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine

Author: Heather Lang

Illustrator: Raúl Colón

Publisher/Date: Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press/2016

Ages: 5-8

Themes: flying, women, biography, courage

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

On November 19, 1916, at 8:25 a.m., Ruth Law took off on a flight that aviation experts thought was doomed. She set off to fly nonstop from Chicago to New York City. Sitting at the controls of her small bi-plane, exposed to the elements, Law battled fierce winds and numbing cold. When her engine ran out of fuel, she glided for two miles and landed at Hornell, New York. Even though she fell short of her goal, she had broken the existing cross-country distance record. And with her plane refueled, she got back in the air and headed for New York City where crowds waited to greet her. In this well-researched, action-packed picture book, Heather Lang and Raúl Colón recreate a thrilling moment in aviation history. Includes an afterword with archival photographs.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

 

The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar

Author: Margarita Engle

Illustrator: Sara Palacios

Publisher/date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster)/March 2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: flying, first female pilot, biography, courage

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

In this beautiful picture book filled with soaring words and buoyant illustrations, award-winners Margarita Engle and Sara Palacios tell the inspiring true story of Aída de Acosta, the first woman to fly a motorized aircraft.

On a lively street in the lovely city of Paris, a girl named Aída glanced up and was dazzled by the sight of an airship. Oh, how she wished she could soar through the sky like that! The inventor of the airship, Alberto, invited Aída to ride with him, but she didn’t want to be a passenger. She wanted to be the pilot.

Aída was just a teenager, and no woman or girl had ever flown before. She didn’t let that stop her, though. All she needed was courage and a chance to try.

Read my review.

I paired these books because they both feature ground-breaking female pilots at the dawn of aviation, who conquered their fears and society’s expectations to soar to new heights. Each book focuses on the flight and events leading up to it, and both contain helpful backmatter about each pilot and her role in aviation history.

PPBF – Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

I confess that the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book was not familiar to me. Nor did I know about the performance noted in the title. So I’m so happy that Margarita Engle discovered young Teresa and shared this heart-warming story.

Title: Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

Written By: Margarita Engle

Illustrated By: Rafael López

Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: music, refugee, immigrant, courage, biography

Opening:

When Teresa was a little girl in Venezuela, Mamá sang lullabies while Papá showed Teresita how to let her happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of a piano.

Brief Synopsis: The story of how a young pianist, the “Piano Girl” Teresa Carreño, performed for President Lincoln and his family at the White House during the dark days of the Civil War, as the family was grieving the death of their son.

Links to Resources:

  • Teresa was born in Venezuela. Find out more about this South American country;
  • Teresa performed a song about a Mockingbird. Learn more about this bird;
  • Listen to the Mockingbird was a popular song in America in the mid-19th century. Listen to a recording of it;
  • Learn more about Teresa in the Historical Note and see the Curriculum Guide for further insights;
  • Teresa played the piano to cheer up President Lincoln and his family. What can you do to cheer up a friend, family member, or neighbor?

Why I Like this Book:

In Dancing Hands, Engle introduces readers to a famous 19th century pianist, Teresa Carreño. Readers learn that Teresa loved playing the piano as a young child in Venezuela, but that sometimes she “had to struggle” to play the “stubborn music”. Despite these struggles, Teresa persisted and became an accomplished pianist at a young age.

When Teresa was eight years old, her family fled conflict and sailed to New York City, where Teresa “felt lost”, lonely, and sad, especially as no one spoke Spanish and the US was embroiled in the Civil War. But when Teresa acquired a piano in New York, her life and playing skills improved. Soon, she was performing in concerts, culminating with a performance at the White House before President Lincoln and his family, shortly after the death of his son and during the bleak days of the Civil War.

I think any child who has felt shy speaking before strangers, nervous before a music recital or worried about a big game will relate to Teresa’s predicament. That a child could brighten a President’s life and bring comfort to him and his family is an important lesson for children and adults that young people, including those who are recent arrivals to a country, can make the world better by sharing their talents.

I also think Dancing Hands reminds readers that music has the power to soothe people in times of trouble, acting as a balm for creators, performers and listeners.

López’s mixed media illustrations reflect Teresa’s moods throughout the story, with bright, tropical colors prevalent when she was happy and darker blues and grays dominating scenes of worry and concern.

A Note about Craft:

Dancing Hands is a biography of a pianist who had a long international career as a professional pianist and singer. But Engle has focused solely on the start of that career, when Teresa was still a child, culminating with this one special performance for President Lincoln. I think by limiting the timespan and focus in this way, Engle has created a picture book that will appeal even to younger children and to which children will more readily relate. Also, by honing in on this one important performance early in her stay in the United States, Engle widens the subject of the book from just the story of a gifted pianist to include her journey as a refugee and immigrant who shared her talents and enriched her new home.

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 – of Architects

I love it when I can pair a female trailblazer with a male icon in the same field. Don’t you agree?

Prairie Boy: Frank Lloyd Wright Turns the Heartland into a Home

Author: Barb Rosenstock

Illustrator: Christopher Silas Neal

Publisher/Date: Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights/2019

Ages: 7-10

Themes: organic architecture, STEAM, biography

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Frank Lloyd Wright, a young boy from the prairie, becomes America’s first world-famous architect in this engaging and inspirational nonfiction picture book introducing organic architecture–a style he created based on the relationship between buildings and the natural world–and transformed the American home.

Frank Lloyd Wright loved the Wisconsin prairie where he was born, with its wide-open sky and waves of tall grass. As his family moved across the United States, young Frank found his own home in shapes: rectangles, triangles, half-moons, and circles. When he returned to his beloved prairie, Frank pursued a career in architecture. But he didn’t think the Victorian-era homes found there fit the prairie landscape. Using his knowledge and love of shapes, Frank created houses more organic to the land. He redesigned the American home inside and out, developing a truly unique architecture style that celebrated the country’s landscape and lifestyle. Author Barb Rosenstock and artist Christopher Silas Neal explore the early life and creative genius of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, highlighting his passion, imagination, and ingenuity.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid

Author & Illustrator: Jeanette Winter

Publisher/Date: Beach Lane Books/2017

Ages: 5-10

Themes: STEAM, biography, architecture

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Get to know Zaha Hadid in this nonfiction picture book about the famed architect’s life and her triumph over adversity from celebrated author-illustrator Jeanette Winter.

Zaha Hadid grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, and dreamed of designing her own cities. After studying architecture in London, she opened her own studio and started designing buildings. But as a Muslim woman, Hadid faced many obstacles. Determined to succeed, she worked hard for many years, and achieved her goals—and now you can see the buildings Hadid has designed all over the world.

Read my review.

I paired these books because they are picture book biographies of world-famous architects, both of whom changed the practice of architecture. In Wright’s case, he originated the idea of a prairie home that was part of and complemented its natural surroundings. Hadid was not only the first female architect to head her own firm, but her designs were rooted in her Muslim and Middle Eastern heritage. Interestingly, Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and Hadid’s residential building along New York City’s High Line combine curved facades which complement their surroundings well.

 

 

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).

PPBF – Out of this World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington

When I read a recent article about the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book and realized that she, like so many other artists, fled Europe and the Nazis during World War II, I knew that I had to find, and review, this new picture book biography.

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Title: Out of this World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington

Written By: Michelle Markel

Illustrated By: Amanda Hall

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

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: biography, female artist, surrealism, refugee

Opening:

Leonora’s parents wanted her to be like every other well-bred English girl.

But she was not.

At the age of four, Leonora started scribbling on the walls, then on paper, and soon the pictures came flooding out….

Brief Synopsis: The biography of Leonora Carrington, an English artist who created colorful, fantasy-filled art featuring strong females.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about surrealism and try creating your own surrealistic artwork;
  • Carrington’s art features strong females. Think of a woman that you consider strong (either someone you know or someone you’ve learned about, like a politician, actor or artist). Use your imagination to think of some objects that remind you of that woman. Draw a picture combining that female and these objects.

Why I Like this Book:

Out of this World combines beautiful text and gorgeous illustrations to tell the life of an artist who defied societal norms to follow her imagination. Markel shares that Leonora found inspiration in nature, in the legends told by her Irish grandmother, and in fantastic tales. Leonora drew from a young age, even scribbling on walls at age 4, and kept drawing, letting her imagination spill forth, throughout her life.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that she was the youngest and only female in a group of Surrealist artists in Paris early in her career. But after fleeing the Nazis and settling in Mexico, she became friends with a fellow female artist, and went on to create fantastic artwork featuring strong females. As Markel concludes, art “was a way to love the universe and understand it.”  It was also a way to share her perception that “women have special gifts; they can do things beyond anybody’s wildest dreams”, which, as Markel notes, “is marvelous, and it’s powerful, and it’s true.” I think young artists and young feminists will be inspired by this biography to follow their imaginations, wherever they may lead.

Hall’s colorful watercolor inks and gouache illustrations are filled with images that evoke those that Leonora herself created. Many are two-page spreads that act as a window into Leonora’s imagination and art.

A Note about Craft:

Markel uses words such as imagination, dreaminess, magic, fantastic, and mystical throughout the text. These terms could also be used to describe the artwork Leonora created. It makes me think that Markel viewed Leonora’s work, jotted down words that came to mind, and then used them to describe her life. Doing so helps the reader understand Leonora’s life and work better, too, and is a technique writers can use, I think, when writing non-fiction.

For an informative recent interview with Hall about the creation of Out of this World including its genesis and the challenges of depicting the life of someone whose artwork is still protected by copyright, see Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating.

Markel and Hall also collaborated on The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers/2012).

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