Tag Archives: biography

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

Yesterday was World Refugee Day. This week, Refugee Week is celebrated in many parts of the world. When we think of refugees, we don’t often remember that famous artists, like Irving Berlin, the subject of my review last week, and the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book, were refugees, too. Thankfully, both found refuge when they needed it.

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

Written By: Barb Rosenstock

Illustrated By: Mary GrandPré

Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: modern art, refugee, biography, Judaism

Opening:

Through the window, the boy sees…Papa, trudging home from work, wool coat shiny with the salt of fish. Mama, sprinkling today’s gossip like bits of sugar from her shop next door.

Brief Synopsis: The biography of the modern artist, Marc Chagall, a young boy who observed life outside his window in Russia, dreamt of color, fled to Paris and then New York, and created paintings, sculptures and stained glass.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

In lyrical language that mimics the rhythms of Chagall’s autobiography, Rosenstock recounts this artist’s life from boyhood to his last artistic undertakings. In text that summons up several of Chagall’s masterpieces, Rosenstock asks readers to notice what Chagall, as boy, student, misfit, painter, revolutionary, and master, saw and created. I love how Rosenstock draws our attention to the illustrations and to Chagall’s dreams that became his artistic creations.

I also appreciate how Rosenstock recounts where and why Chagall moved, without letting that overwhelm the focus on his artistry. We learn that Chagall fled Russia to escape anti-Semitism and the “glittering city” of St. Petersburg, filled with many poor people who were ignored; that he grew disillusioned with the authoritarian Soviet government, and fled once again to Paris; and that he sought refuge in America when “war stomps across France.”  Had America not accorded Chagall refugee status, this Jewish artist may not have survived the Holocaust.

We also learn that Chagall did not begin creating the stained glass windows for which he is so famous until after these experiences, when he was older (in the Author’s Note, we learn that Chagall was 70 when he designed his first original window). I appreciate Rosenstock’s focus on Chagall’s “second career”, as I think it shows readers that talent doesn’t end when someone reaches a certain age, and that it’s never too late to try new pursuits.

GrandPré’s rich acrylic on board illustrations utilize Chagall’s rich palette and further the reader’s immersion into his life and work.

A Note about Craft:

Rosenstock uses a window motif to organize Chagall’s life by age, location and work. She repeats “[t]hrough the window” seven times, each time showing the reader what Chagall sees. I think this is a wonderful way to provide repetition in the text and tie different stages of Chagall’s life together, especially since, as Rosenstock shares in an Author’s Note, Chagall “was fascinated by views glimpsed through windows” from an early age and created art featuring windows. In a twist at the end, though, Rosenstock notes, “Through Marc’s windows, we see…”, and then proceeds to describe components of  Chagall’s stained glass windows. I love how this draws the reader into the story and invites us to discover what we can see.

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!

PPBF – Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

Happy Flag Day! To celebrate, let’s wave our flags, raise our voices in song, and celebrate the immigrants who contribute so much to our country, like the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book.

Title: Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

Written By: Nancy Churnin

Illustrated By: James Rey Sanchez

Publisher/Date: Creston Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes/Topics: biography, composer, immigrant, patriotism, singing

Opening:

Irving stood on tiptoe to see over the rail. Behind him, too far to glimpse, was Russia where angry Cossacks had burned his family’s home to ashes. Ahead was America. What would they find there?

Brief Synopsis: A cradle-to-grave biography of Irving Berlin, a young Jewish immigrant who shared his love of his adopted homeland by composing a beloved anthem.

Links to Resources:

  • Listen to some of the over 1,500 songs that Irving Berlin composed. Do you have a favorite?
  • Listen to Kate Smith’s first performance of God Bless America;
  • Churnin features a Make America Sing page on her website, where she encourages readers to celebrate their heritage and that of classmates and friends;
  • Check out the Curriculum Guide found at Creston Books for more ideas.

Why I Like this Book:

Churnin has written a lyrical biography that introduces young readers to the composer who wrote a song that most, if not all, will recognize. But many, including adult readers,  may not know that Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant who as a young child fled Russia with his family to escape persecution, that he left home at 13 to support himself after his father’s death, and that he sold newspapers and was a singing waiter before composing the first of over 1,500 songs, including many popular Broadway shows. And though Berlin became rich and famous for his catchy tunes, Churnin informs readers that “he never took a penny for ‘God Bless America.’” All proceeds from that song he donated to the Girl and Boy Scouts. As Churnin notes, it was his way of sharing the “music in his heart’, his “thank you” to America, the country that opened its doors to him and other refugees in the late 19th century.

I think Churnin’s focus on Berlin’s difficult childhood will help young readers to empathize with Berlin. I think, too, that her focus on his persistence will resonate. Music lovers of all ages will enjoy learning about Berlin. Irving Berlin will make a welcome addition to classroom and home libraries.

Sanchez’ muted-tone illustrations add an early-to-mid 20th century feel to the text. I love the sense of crowding in the early, tenement scenes, and I especially love the pop of red that punctuates the drab backgrounds, generally on a long red scarf that mimics the flow of the Hudson River and the notes on a music staff.

A Note about Craft:

In a StoryStorm post this past January, Churnin advised writers interested in exploring historical topics to “make a date with history” and research important anniversaries when trying to determine who, or what, to write about. She followed her own advice, as Irving Berlin appeared on bookshelves in 2018, the 100th anniversary of God Bless America. Churnin’s latest picture book biography, Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, was published in time for the 100th anniversary of the birthdays of these two important people. Who, or what, will you choose as your next non-fiction picture book topic?

In an interview on The Picture Book Buzz recently, Churnin mentioned that an “aha” moment for her occurred when a friend noted that Berlin incorporated a Jewish melody into God Bless America. This became Churnin’s “way into” the story. Identifying that “tidbit” that resonates and becomes a theme in a story is so important for any writer, but especially for someone trying to condense a long life into limited text, all while trying to make it interesting and accessible to young children. It also could be something that sets your book apart from others, just in case, as happened with the anniversary of God Bless America, you aren’t the only one writing and publishing a picture book about it.

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!

Perfect Pairing – of Soccer Stories

The children’s soccer leagues restarted for the season at the sports fields near my home recently. To mark their return, I’m featuring two diverse soccer stories today.

The Field

Author: Baptiste Paul

Illustrator: Jacqueline Alcántara

Publisher/Date: North-South Books/2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: soccer, teamwork, play, St. Lucia (Caribbean), #WNDB, #ReadYourWorld

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Vini! Come! The field calls!” cries a girl as she and her younger brother rouse their community—family, friends, and the local fruit vendor—for a pickup soccer (futbol) game. Boys and girls, young and old, players and spectators come running—bearing balls, shoes, goals, and a love of the sport.

“Friends versus friends” teams are formed, the field is cleared of cows, and the game begins! But will a tropical rainstorm threaten their plans?

Read my review.

 

Pelé: King of Soccer (El rey del fútbol)

Author: Monica Brown

Illustrator: Rudy Gutiérrez

Publisher/Date: Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers/2009

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, dual-language (English & Spanish), soccer, #WNDB, #ReadYourWorld

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Monica Brown and Rudy Gutierrez team up to deliver what Kirkus called, in a starred review, an “inspiring blend of art and story,” about the most famous soccer star in the world, Pelé. This bilingual picture book will inspire, teach, and amaze readers as they learn about the man who revolutionized the sport of soccer.

Do you know how a poor boy from Brazil who loved fútbol more than anything else became the biggest soccer star the world has ever known? This is the true story of Pelé, King of Soccer, the first man in the history of the sport to score a thousand goals and become a living legend. Rudy Gutierrez’s dynamic illustrations make award-winning author Monica Brown’s story of this remarkable sports hero come alive!

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because soccer is the main subject of both. Although The Field is fiction and Pelé is a biography, both feature language that made me feel the motion and emotion of a soccer match. Both also feature children who play soccer on improvised fields, in Pelé’s case using a grapefruit or “an old sock with newspapers”.  I love how the fictional players found happiness playing soccer in The Field  and how the real Pelé loved soccer and found success playing it.

For more soccer books, see Pragmatic Mom’s recent #OwnVoices Diversity Soccer Books for Kids list.

PPBF – Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank

I remember as a child being inspired by the words of the subjects of today’s Perfect Picture Book. As a child, and even as an adult who has taken more than my fair share of history courses, I didn’t grasp the parallels in their lives. I’m so glad that the author of today’s Perfect Picture Book saw these parallels, and wrote this book.

Title: Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank

Written By: Nancy Churnin

Illustrated By: Yevgenia Nayberg

Publisher/Date: Creston Books/2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-14

Themes/Topics: biography; the power of words; kindness; hope

Opening:

In 1929, two babies were born on opposite sides of the ocean. They never met. They didn’t even speak the same language. But their hearts beat with the same hope.

Brief Synopsis: The biographies of Anne Frank and Martin Luther King, Jr., both born in 1929, and the parallels of their lives and legacies.

Links to Resources:

  • Think of someone who shares your birthday or who was born in the year you were born. How are your lives the same? How do they differ?
  • Anne Frank is known to many because of her diary. Try writing (or drawing) a diary for a week, a month, a year, or forever!
  • One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most well-known speeches begins, “I have a dream”. Do you have a dream? Describe your dream in words or pictures.
  • Participate in The Kindred Spirits Project, which encourages children and class rooms to discover and share what they have in common with children from other regions, schools or countries.
  • Find more suggestions in the Curriculum/Discussion Guide.

Why I Like this Book:

Utilizing parallel structure, Churnin explores the lives of two well-known historical figures born in 1929: Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the two never met, they shared life features, such as being born into loving families but facing hatred at an early age. For King, it was being shunned and being barred from “Whites Only” spaces because of his skin color. For Frank, it was being shunned and being barred from school, first in Germany, from which her family fled, and then in Holland, because of her Jewish faith and heritage. Both King and Frank found their voices as teenagers, King as an orator who spoke of “black and white children playing together in harmony”, and Frank as a diarist who reflected on “how light could brighten the deepest darkness”. Despite the challenges they faced, both remained hopeful of a better world. Frank believed in people’s innate goodness, and King believed in the power of peaceful protest to bring about justice for all.

Churnin traces the lives of these peace builders through to their untimely deaths. But rather than dwelling on their early deaths, she leaves readers with hope, as “no one could kill the way Martin inspired others”, and “Anne’s words will never die”.

Many children’s books have been written about the lives and legacies of Martin and Anne. By pointing out the parallels in their lives and in their hopes in the face of hatred, I think Churnin has brought a new perspective to both of their legacies that will empower children to view their own circumstances with hope and treat others with kindness and love.

Because Martin & Anne involves two storylines in distinct locations an ocean apart, the illustrations play an important role in bringing a sense of unity to the whole. Nayberg’s soft, earth-toned, stylized art works well to convey the worlds of both of these historical figures. Her inclusion of a brighter palette towards the end of the book left me feeling hopeful that King’s and Frank’s legacies will endure.

A Note about Craft:

Although children’s biographies of both King and Frank exist, Churnin brings new life to their legacies by showing the parallels in their lives. For those of us writing picture book biographies, this illustrates that finding a fresh way into a story, even if that way involves combining two biographies into one book, enables authors to explore even well-known figures and contribute to our understanding of them.

Visit Churnin’s website to read more about the inspiration behind Martin & Anne and see her other works.

Visit Nayberg’s website to see more of her artwork.

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 Dual-Story Picture Books

Very few picture books involve two separate stories that meet at some point in the book. Interestingly, I discovered two recently that use this structure, so I couldn’t help but pair them.

 

The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & The Life of H. Tracy Hall

Author: Hannah Holt

Illustrator: Jay Fleck

Publisher/Date: Balzer + Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)/2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: diamonds; engineering; STEM; innovation; biography

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Told in a unique dual-narrative format, The Diamond and the Boy follows the stories of both natural diamond creation and the life of H. Tracy Hall, the inventor of a revolutionary diamond-making machine. Perfect for fans of Rosie Revere, Engineer, and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.

Before a diamond is a gem, it’s a common gray rock called graphite. Through an intense trial of heat and pressure, it changes into one of the most valuable stones in the world.

Before Tracy Hall was an inventor, he was a boy—born into poverty, bullied by peers, forced to work at an early age. However, through education and experimentation, he became one of the brightest innovators of the twentieth century, eventually building a revolutionary machine that makes diamonds.

From debut author Hannah Holt—the granddaughter of Tracy Hall—and illustrator Jay Fleck comes this fascinating in-depth portrait of both rock and man.

Read a review at Picture Books Help Kids Soar and an interview with Holt at The Picture Book Buzz.

 

Naming Liberty

Author: Jane Yolen

Illustrator: Jim Burke

Publisher/Date: Philomel Books/2008

Ages: 6-9

Themes: immigration; Statue of Liberty; freedom

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A double celebration for Independence Day! In this wonderfully unique book, Jane Yolen and Jim Burke weave two stories at once, as readers see young Gitl in Russia leaving her home for faraway America, wondering what new name she will choose for herself when she arrives, and young artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi dreaming of a monument he wants to build to honor freedom. It is an arduous journey for Gitl as she and her family travel across land and sea to arrive on this shore, but when she sees the magnificent Statue of Liberty standing in New York Harbor, she knows her name in this great new country must be ?Liberty.

Just in time for Independence Day, Jim Burke’s magnificent paintings capture Yolen’s inspired tale of a girl and an artist and their passionate belief in freedom.

Read a review at Kids Bookshelf.

I paired these books because of their parallel structures.

In The Diamond and the Boy, Holt tells the story of the creation of a natural diamond, from graphite to sparkling gem on the left side of each spread. On the right side, she shares the biography of her grandfather, the scientist and inventor, Tracy Hall, who rose from an impoverished childhood to discover a process of creating man-made industrial diamonds. I love how Holt uses similar adjectives to describe the graphite’s journey to become a diamond and Hall’s life. I also appreciate the terrific backmatter about diamonds and Hall.

In Naming Liberty, Yolen uses the left side of each spread to tell the fictional story of young Gitl and her family as they embark on a journey from a small Russian village to New York City, where they are greeted by the Statue of Liberty. On the right side, Yolen tells the story of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and the creation of the Statue of Liberty. In an Author’s Note, Yolen explains that Gitl’s story is based on that of Yolen’s family as well as the immigration stories of other Eastern European Jewish immigrants. She also provides further information about the Statue of Liberty and its creator.

Although The Diamond and the Boy is pure non-fiction and Naming Liberty is only partially true, I think it’s illuminating how telling two stories side-by-side creates a picture book that is more than the sum of its parts.

Perfect Pairing – of Natural Women

For the last Perfect Pairing post of March, I’m channeling my inner-Carol King, and focusing on Natural Women, or more precisely, picture books about two 19th century women who loved nature and shared it with others.

The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photography

Author & Illustrator: Fiona Robinson

Publisher/Date: Abrams Books for Young Readers/2019

Ages: 6-9

Themes: nature; botany; women’s history; photography

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A gorgeous picture book biography of botanist and photographer Anna Atkins–the first person to ever publish a book of photography
After losing her mother very early in life, Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was raised by her loving father. He gave her a scientific education, which was highly unusual for women and girls in the early 19th century. Fascinated with the plant life around her, Anna became a botanist. She recorded all her findings in detailed illustrations and engravings, until the invention of cyanotype photography in 1842. Anna used this new technology in order to catalogue plant specimens—a true marriage of science and art. In 1843, Anna published the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions with handwritten text and cyanotype photographs. It is considered the first book of photographs ever published. Weaving together histories of women, science, and art, The Bluest of Blues will inspire young readers to embark on their own journeys of discovery and creativity.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

Out of School and into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story

Author: Suzanne Slade

Illustrator: Jessica Lanan

Publisher/Date: Sleeping Bear Press/2017

Ages: 7-10

Themes: science; biography; nature; women’s history

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This picture book biography examines the life and career of naturalist and artist Anna Comstock (1854-1930), who defied social conventions and pursued the study of science. From the time she was a young girl, Anna Comstock was fascinated by the natural world. She loved exploring outdoors, examining wildlife and learning nature’s secrets. From watching the teamwork of marching ants to following the constellations in the sky, Anna observed it all. And her interest only increased as she grew older and went to college at Cornell University. There she continued her studies, pushing back against those social conventions that implied science was a man’s pursuit. Eventually Anna became known as a nature expert, pioneering a movement to encourage schools to conduct science and nature classes for children outdoors, thereby increasing students’ interest in nature. In following her passion, this remarkable woman blazed a trail for female scientists today.

Read a review at The Nonfiction Detectives.

I paired these books because they feature 19th century women who loved and studied nature and shared that love with others, despite societal expectations to the contrary. In The Bluest of Blues, Robinson shares Atkins’ passion for botany and her contributions to the scientific study of plants via early illustrations and engravings and later photographs. In Out of School, Slade details the life of Anna Comstock, who studied plants and insects at Cornell University in the 1870s, whose insect illustrations helped farmers to identify pests, who created lesson plans to encourage teachers to hold nature classes outdoors, and who wrote and published many books about nature. In both picture books, a clear take-away is to follow your passion and see where it leads.

Looking for similar reads?

See, The Girl who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (Joyce Sidman, 2018); The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever (H. Joseph Hopkins/Jill McElmurry, 2013); I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon (Baptiste & Miranda Paul, 2019).

PPBF – Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

I was so happy to find this new #OwnVoices picture book biography at my local library in time to share it with you during Women’s History Month.

Title: Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

Written By: Anika Aldamuy Denise

Illustrated By: Paola Escobar

Publisher/Date: Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: librarians; storytelling; biography; Puerto Rico; bilingual – Spanish and English

Opening:

It is 1921. Pura Teresa Belpré leaves her home in San Juan for a visit to Nueva York/Words travel with her: stories her abuela taught her. Cuentos folklóricos Pura retold in the shade of a tamarind tree, in Puerto Rico.

Brief Synopsis:

Planting Stories recounts the life and achievements of the extraordinary Pura Belpré who was the first bilingual assistant at the New York Public Library and who shared the stories of her childhood with the children of her adopted city.

Links to Resources:

  • Ask a relative or older adult neighbor or family friend to share stories from their childhoods or from the places they grew up;
  • Make and share stories using puppets;
  • It’s spring! Time to plant a garden! Still too cold where you live? Visit the conservatory at a local botanical garden or even a florist.

Why I Like this Book:

In Planting Stories, Denise shows how one person’s idea, to share the stories of her beloved abuela from her homeland, Puerto Rico, grew into books and story hours for Spanish speakers in New York City, helped welcome this new population into libraries, and grew into a legacy of bilingual literature. I loved learning that Pura Belpré brought the Puerto Rican folktales that she’d learned from her grandmother with her to New York. I think this notion of using aspects of the past to enrich the future is an important one to share with kids. I think that kids will be surprised to learn that one librarian could have such a lasting impact on children’s literature, especially as, I suspect, most of them would not recognize Pura Belpré’s name. Finally, I think Planting Stories includes several themes that teachers and librarians can use in classrooms, including the importance of children seeing their own cultures reflected in books, the use of non-italicized Spanish terms sprinkled in the English text and how we can figure out meaning through context, the many things we can learn from elderly relatives and friends, and how newcomers can enrich their new homes.

Escobar’s vibrant and detailed illustrations help provide context to Pura Belpré’s story and further Denise’s analogy of stories growing like plants with many flowers evoking Pura Belpré’s tropical Puerto Rican childhood.

A Note about Craft:

Like seeds, stories can grow and multiply, as Denise shows us in Planting Stories. Although gardens and plants aren’t always the first images that come to mind when we think of libraries, I love this analogy, as it shows connections between storytelling and finding one’s place in the world, be it the natural world or an unfamiliar city. What analogies can you use in your writing to tie a story together or to help readers better understand or relate to its subject?

Visit Denise’s website to discover her other picture books. Per the jacket flap, Paola Escobar is a Columbian illustrator, working and living in Bogotá.

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 – Dances into Spring

I’m continuing the celebration of Women’s History Month with a focus on trailblazing dancers.

Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins

Author: Michelle Meadows

Illustrator: Ebony Glenn

Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company (Macmillan Publishing Group)/2019

Ages: 4-8

Themes: ballet; diversity; trailblazers; biography

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A lyrical picture book biography of Janet Collins, the first African American principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera House. 
Janet Collins wanted to be a ballerina in the 1930s and 40s, a time when racial segregation was widespread in the United States. Janet pursued dance with a passion, despite being rejected from discriminatory dance schools. When she was accepted into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a teenager on the condition that she paint her skin white for performances, Janet refused. She continued to go after her dreams, never compromising her values along the way. From her early childhood lessons to the height of her success as the first African American prima ballerina in the Metropolitan Opera, Brave Ballerina is the story of a remarkable pioneer as told by Michelle Meadows, with fantastic illustrations from Ebony Glenn.

Read a review at Noodling with Words.

 

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird

Author: Misty Copeland

Illustrator: Christopher Myers

Publisher/Date: Penguin Young Readers Group/2014

Ages: 6-10

Themes: ballet; trailblazers; determination

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

In her debut picture book, Misty Copeland tells the story of a young girl–an every girl–whose confidence is fragile and who is questioning her own ability to reach the heights that Misty has reached. Misty encourages this young girl’s faith in herself and shows her exactly how, through hard work and dedication, she too can become Firebird.
Lyrical and affecting text paired with bold, striking illustrations that are some of Caldecott Honoree Christopher Myers’s best work, makes Firebird perfect for aspiring ballerinas everywhere.

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because both are lyrical picture books that explore the hard work and dedication necessary to excel at ballet and that encourage all young children, regardless of race or socio-economic situation, to soar through their endeavors. In Brave Ballerina, readers learn the story of Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina in a major company. In lyrical rhymes that dance through the story, Meadows explores each component that led to Collins’ success, ending with the revelation that “This is the dancer,/bold like the sun,/a prima ballerina/in 1951.” In the fictional Firebird, Copeland herself offers encouragement to the narrator, a young dancer who doubts her abilities. With practice, Copeland assures the budding ballerina that she’ll “soar become a swan, a beauty, a firebird for sure”.

Looking for similar reads?

See Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova (Chronicle Books/2015).

PPBF – Dangerous Jane

For International Women’s Day, I’m happy to share a fairly recent picture book biography of one of my all-time heroes.

Title: Dangerous Jane

Written By: Suzanne Slade

Illustrated By: Alice Ratterree

Publisher/Date: Peachtree Publishers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes/Topics: biography; Nobel Peace Prize; Hull House; immigrants; settlement house

Opening:

Jane was born beside a sparkling creek on an Illinois prairie in a friendly town called Cedarville.

Brief Synopsis: The biography of Jane Addams who founded Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, led the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women to restore peace during World War I, helped displaced persons and refugees after the war, and was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the Teacher’s Guide to find discussion questions, a timeline, vocabulary crossword puzzle, simile writing exercise, and more;
  • Pair Dangerous Jane with primary sources from the era to discover more about Jane Addams;
  • Check out the back matter, including a timeline, more about “Dangerous Jane”, and a select bibliography;
  • Celebrate International Women’s Day in your classroom, library or home, with these resources.

Why I Like this Book:

In this cradle to almost-grave picture book biography, Slade constructs a compelling narrative to show how the losses Jane Addams suffered as a child and the poverty she saw then informed her life’s work. As Slade notes, “Jane promised herself- when she grew up, she would buy a big house to share with people in need.” Later, we learn that Addams founded Hull House in Chicago to help immigrants adapt to life in America. She then used the skills she’d honed helping “people from different countries live in peace at Hull House” to promote peace during World War I. Although her efforts were not immediately successful and although Addams was criticized for the work she undertook, ultimately “dangerous” Jane was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored.

I think children, teachers, and parents will appreciate how Slade ties the seemingly disparate aspects of Addams’ work into a cohesive narrative and how she relates it back to Addams’ childhood. By doing so, I think she helps children realize that they, too, can make a difference. I also liked that Slade focuses not just on Addams’ well-known settlement house work, but that she extends the story to include Addams’ peace-building efforts.

Based on a William Morris color scheme and incorporating the faces evident in contemporary photographs, Ratterree’s detailed illustrations help evoke Addams’ world.  Even young children will be able to follow along finding Addams, clad in green throughout the story, in each spread.

A Note about Craft:

The title of today’s perfect picture book intrigued me and caused me to pick it up. Reading the jacket flap, I learned immediately that Dangerous Jane is the biography of Jane Addams, whose work at Hull House I’d studied, and whose memoir about the same I’d read. I could think of many adjectives to describe Addams, but “dangerous” wasn’t among them. I was hooked! You’ll have to read the book to determine why this is such a perfect title – you may be as surprised as I was.

Dangerous Jane is a cradle to almost-grave biography. Writing Addams’ story in this way enables Slade, I think, to put the main events into perspective and encourages children to think that if the sickly, motherless Addams could found a movement and promote world peace, they can bring about positive change, too.

With such a long timeline, it could be difficult to follow the story. Slade provides repetition and repeats motifs which, I think, help tie the story together. Addams’ “aching heart” is one of those; asking questions, “What could she do?”, is another. Depicting Addams in a signature-green outfit, wearing her mother’s broach is a third, and I’m sure there are several I’m not highlighting here. What repetition or threads can you use to bring order to and help readers follow a decades-long story?

Visit Slade’s website to see more of the many non-fiction picture books she has written. Read a post by Slade at Picture Book Builders in which she shares why she wrote Dangerous Jane and interviews Ratterree.

Visit Ratterree’s website to see more of her illustrations and read a post in which she discusses her research for Dangerous Jane and interviews Slade.

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 Female Poets

I can’t think of a better way to start off a celebration of Women’s History Month than with two picture books that celebrate two American female poets.

My Uncle Emily 

Author: Jane Yolen

Illustrator: Nancy Carpenter

Publisher/Date: Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group/2009

Ages: 6-8

Themes: poetry; Emily Dickinson

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This six-year-old has an uncle like no other! His uncle wears long white dresses and never smokes cigars. Gilbert’s uncle is none other than Emily Dickinson . . . Uncle Emily he calls her. And how he loves her. He knows that she writes poems about everything, even dead bees. But it’s a poem about truth that, after a fracas in school, he remembers best. “Tell all the Truth,” the poem begins. And, in finally admitting what went on that day, he learns something firsthand about her poetry, something about her, and a good deal about the importance of telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be.

Read a review at Publisher’s Weekly.

 A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks

Author: Alice Faye Duncan

Illustrator: Xia Gordon

Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books/2019

Ages: 5-8

Themes: poetry; Gwendolyn Brooks; biography; Pulitzer Prize; African-American

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks.
Sing it loud—a Chicago blues.
With a voice both wise and witty, Gwendolyn Brooks crafted poems that captured the urban Black experience and the role of women in society. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, reading and writing constantly from a young age, her talent lovingly nurtured by her parents. Brooks ultimately published 20 books of poetry, two autobiographies, and one novel. Alice Faye Duncan has created her own song to celebrate Gwendolyn’s life and work, illuminating the tireless struggle of revision and the sweet reward of success.

Read a review at Chapter 16 by Julie Danielson from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, where she features illustrations from the book.

I paired these books because they explore the lives and poetry of two important women from two different eras of American history, but in quite different ways. In My Uncle Emily, Yolen sets up a fictionalized interaction between poet Emily Dickinson and a favorite nephew that centers on Dickinson’s poem, “Tell All the Truth”. Despite the fictional treatment, however, Yolen reveals the truth in Dickinson’s poetry and sheds light on the importance of family to Dickinson. In A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks, Duncan recounts the life of Brooks, starting in childhood, with lyrical text that weaves Brooks’ poetry into the narrative. Poetry is front and center in both picture books, not surprisingly, given the centrality of poetry in the subjects’ lives and in the lives of these gifted authors.