The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs, illustrated and written by Fiona Robinson, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419725517.
Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, written by Sarah Aronson, published by Beach Lane (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1481476683. To be released: March 12, 2019.
Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Carolrhoda, ISBN: 978-1512498080.
When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Tex, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, written by Toni Buzzeo, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 9781419731631.
All four of these picture book biographies bubble with excitement about the cool people they profile. Fresh, exciting art and evocative text combine to create a kid-friendly look at each individual’s contributions to their respective fields. Breaking ground in the studies of botany and photography. Creating wild, absurd, and fantabulous contraptions. Striving to win the Saddle Bronc Championship. Discovering the world famous bones of a celebrated T. Rex. The people in these books defied the odds and triumphed.
Fiona Robinson’s The Bluest of Blues won me over the second I held the beautifully designed book in my hand. The book’s tall dimensions, the care put into the cover showcasing Robinson’s striking art. So inviting. Whisking readers back to the early 19th century, the account introduces readers to Anna Atkins who has a loving bond with her scientist father who includes her while studying everything from botany to entomology, from chemistry to zoology. He wants her to have a great education in a time when society did not encourage girls to attend school. Robinson’s use of the present tense adds an urgency to the prose, and gives young readers a “you are there” feeling. The color blue dominates each spread, and it’s remarkable how much visual interest she brings to each illustration. I love the textures and find her stylized people compelling. Robinson covers a lot of ground here, sweeping readers through her life up to Atkins’ groundbreaking work with photography. The strong back matter includes instructions on how kids can work with adults to create their own Cyanotypes. Robinson has created a visual stunner of a book.
Cartoonist Rube Goldberg had a playful spirit, and Just Like Rube Goldberg does an expert job capturing what made him such a creative legend. Writer Sarah Aronson grabs the reader right away with the first line “Question: How do you become a successful, award-winning artist and famous inventor without ever inventing anything at all?” and then she writes “(This is not a trick question.)” Consider me intrigued. Aronson’s text is both straightforward and zesty, at first zeroing in on his shy quiet childhood when he developed a love for cartoons and art, and then chronicling the events (including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) that led him to his job as a newspaper cartoonist. Illustrator Robert Neubecker is at the top of his game here, packing each cartoony spread with witty visual details. On the spread discussing how Rube worked for the Department of Water and Sewers, Neubecker has the words flow through a series of pipes that resemble, well, a Rube Goldberg contraption. I love how he depicts Rube’s body language throughout: that pensive look as he draws, the jump for joy when he gets the idea of working for a newspaper, and of course all the scenes that show his wacky contraptions in action. This is a joyous book with excellent back matter and endpapers that have real Goldberg drawings for readers to admire.
My favorite picture book biographies introduce me to someone I personally knew literally (or perhaps even nothing) about. Let ‘Er Buck certainly fits that bill. Thanks to this energetic and robust book, I learned quite a bit about George Fletcher, a bronc buster who wowed those attending the Saddle Bronc Championship at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up. Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (whose Bad News for Outlaws, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie remains a personal favorite) gives her language an effective Old West folksy spin (“Ask any cowpoke and, boy howdy, he’ll tell some tales, and he’ll for sure come around to the story of the Saddle Bronc Championship at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up–and a bronc buster named George Fletcher.”) I can imagine this making a great class read-aloud. Nelson engages the reader with tales of Fletcher’s boyhood riding make-believe broncos, and befriending children at the Umatilla Indian Reservation. She also discusses how he encountered racism while in competition, with judges denying him a victory when he was obviously the winner. Illustrator Gordon C. James, who won several deserved honors for the modern picture book classic Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,creates oil on panel paintings that leap off the page and stir the soul. Action-packed, evocative, slightly hazy since they call attention memories of an earlier time, James’ spreads are simply thrilling and cinematic. Words and images come together to create an indelible portrait of a remarkable man. Excellent back matter!
Chicago’s Field Museum has on display the wow-inducing Sue, the massive T. Rex skeleton greeting visitors. The informative When Sue Found Sue introduces Sue Hendrickson, the super-curious paleontologist who discovered Sue’s bones while working with a team in the desert. Author Toni Buzzeo’s bouncy account takes us back to Sue (the human)’s shy childhood when she spent her time quietly searching for and “finding things.” Cool things like missing trinkets, with hopes of discovering prehistoric butterflies and sunken treasures. I love it when Buzzeo playfully writes that Sue gobbled up books the same way her peers gobbled up gingersnaps. As she grows older, Sue becomes an undersea explorer and then heads to Southern Dakota with others in search of dinosaur fossils. Illustrator Diana Sudyka does a glorious job depicting Sue’s solitary childhood and then her later adventures. She packs her warm, distinct gouache paintings (she uses watercolors made from earth pigments for the Dakota scenes) with intricate details that invite investigation. Sudyka creates vivid colorful images (like the scenes with Sue as a girl studying various objects in her bedroom, and a teenage Sue exploring the coral reef underwater) that feel magical. Budding paleontologists will love the double page spread that shows the now exhumed bones in the formation of a T. Rex. The book touches on some of Sue’s struggles, but ends on a note of triumph with Buzzeo telling us that Sue will never lose her sense of curiosity and will keep on “finding things.”
All four of these books are perfect examples of how to create a memorable, exciting picture book biography for young readers.