Picture books of the day: four terrific new picture book biographies

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.









Picture book of the day: Kwame Alexander has an exciting new imprint and he and Kadir Nelson deliver a knockout with The Undefeated

The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, poem by Kwame Alexander, published by VERSIFY (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 978-1328780966, ARC reviewed, to be released: April 2, 2019.

While at ALA Midwinter in Seattle this past January I had the pleasure of attending a special program celebrating the first batch of books coming out on April 2nd, 2019 under the VERSIFY imprint. The brilliant (and tireless) Kwame Alexander created this imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to, and I’m quoting him from a January 30, 2018 New York Times article by Alexandra Alter,  “find books that other people might not view as feasible or doable.” The 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Honor winner and Newbery winner (for his modern classic The Crossover) has proven since his win that he looks out for other writers, inviting others to collaborate with him on such acclaimed projects as the beautiful poetry collection Out of Wonder (with fellow poets Chris Corderley and Marjorie Heath Wentworth, and Coretta Scott King winning illustrator Ekua Holmes) and the YA titles Solo and Swing (both with Mary Rand Hess).

Alexander spoke to the crowd and introduced the authors and/or illustrators with VERSIFY books coming out this spring. The inventive artist Raúl the Third (I have already reviewed his jawdroppingly cool ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!), novelist Lamar Giles (his middle grade fantasy offering The Last Last-Day-of-Summer is awesome and is already receiving raves), and Kip Wilson (who wrote a YA novel in verse about the Holocaust called White Rose that I cannot wait to read).

Alexander also invited the great artist Kadir Nelson to the stage and they discussed the creation of the breathtaking and powerful The Undefeated. First written for ESPN, Alexander’s poem is a dynamic, moving, and at times sobering look at the triumphs and struggles of black America. He not only gives shout outs to legends like “The Wilma Rudolphs/The Muhammad Alis/The Althea Gibsons/The Jesse Owenses…” (and the other “We Real Cool ones”) but also “…the underdogs/and the uncertain/the Unspoken/but no longer titled.”

Nelson’s vivid oil on panel paintings match Alexander’s words beautifully. Those remarkable collage-like spreads showing famous artists, athletes, and musicians. The portrait of civil rights marchers speaking out because Black Lives Matter. They are all striking and evocative.

The book’s design is effective. The font (which changes size to emphasize certain words) and art pop out of a spare white background. Some page turns punch the reader in the gut. For example, the spread showing a family facing the reader with the words “The ones who survived America/by any means necessary” is followed by spread with a blank page and the words “And the ones who didn’t.” There is devastating series of three spreads that show atrocities (the middle passage, the four victims of the Birmingham church bombing, and recent victims of police brutality and racial profiling), all with the words “This is for the unspeakable.” The book ends on a hopeful note with Nelson’s beautiful painting of young people smiling and Alexander saying “This is for the undefeated./This is for you./And you./And you./This is for us.” The very helpful backmatter explains who each person depicted is, and discusses the historical significance of each reference.

The Undefeated will easily make my best of 2019 list. And I’m excited to see more from Kwame Alexander’s VERSIFY imprint.

Picture book of the day: humor with a palpable message in Crab Cake

Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-0544959002, ARC reviewed, available now.

Creating a picture book for young readers with a message can be tricky business. The very best appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. Deftly capture how a situation is unfair and unjust and the author has cleared the first hurdle. That’s the brilliance of Tsurumi’s latest, Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together, her follow-up to the rollicking slapstick-packed delight Accident!. The gifted illustrator/author introduces the reader to a wondrous world under the sea, deep in the ocean where the creatures exist (mostly) peacefully (there is still the threat of being munched on). Suddenly a catastrophe happens with the humans above dumping disgusting garbage into their habitat. Tsurumi does a brilliant job with color here, juxtaposing the brightness of the early scenes (love the vibrant coral) with the sudden darkness after the waste invasion. The animals decide on a plan to get back at the humans, and what I love about it: it’s absolutely fair. Seriously people, you can have your garbage BACK! Children will click with this, and children are smart: they know that those living in the sea would not be able to do what the characters in this book do. They know it’s up to us humans to stop creating the environmental disasters that we create. (Tsurumi provides some helpful “get involved” websites at the end of the book.)

At the center of this so-good-it-makes-me-giddy-just-writing-about-it book is the absurdity of a crab who, yes, astounds with their baking skills. And that’s another reason Crab Cake works so well: the humor. This isn’t a dry purposeful lesson. No, Tsurumi fills her lovely work with visual wit and giggle-inducing imagery. Before she introduces the crab, she details the behavior of sea creatures doing fairly realistic things. The Spiny Lobster looks for a new home. The Pufferfish puffs up. The Moray Eel pops out of her cave. As a result, seeing the crab doing something completely unexpected, so un-crab like, comes as a terrific surprise. And Tsurumi doesn’t overplay the situation and turn this into a one-joke work. The crab appears fleetingly, offering treats to all on a beach (love the seal with a cupcake on its head) or later to small fish about to be eaten by a bigger fish who is about to be eaten by an even bigger fish who is about to be eaten by…, you get the point. After the ecological disaster strikes, the animals respond with paralyzing fear. It’s the crab who brings the community together by baking a cake. Suddenly the book becomes quite moving as they all communally munch on the treat while discussing the horror of what just happened. And this bond gives them the courage to put their plan in motion and clean their habitat of this human-created mess.

Crab Cake ends on a note of beauty and hope (as did Accident!). I love how she uses outlandish, whimsical humor to ultimately deliver messages of comfort. This will easily make my year-end best of 2019 list.



Picture book of the day: 2 picture book legends celebrate The Roots of Rap

The Roots of Rap, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by little bee books (an imprint of Bonnier Publishing), ISBN: 978-1499804119.

This exuberant non-fiction title has my favorite subtitle of the year: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop. It’s amazing how much this concise gem covers while offering a personal view of the formation of an extremely vital musical art form. The book sweeps through readers through a history of those who influenced the music, and those who contributed to its artistic development. The great Carole Boston Weatherford who makes picture book writing seem effortless, easy, and breezy, serves up zesty rhymes as she chronicles the evolution of rap. She captivates the reader with her words: “Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals–rooted in spoken word./Props to poets Hughes and Dunbar; published. Ain’t you heard?” Weatherford’s text really comes to life in the ’70s which covers street art, graffiti, boom boxes, breakdancing, B-boys busting out moves, and then the deejays who invent music that causes a sonic revolution. Her language conveys the excitement of early hip-hop, the “Dropping, scratching, beat juggling/matching wax on wheels of steel./Wordplay, rhyming, triple-timing, keepin’ the lyrics real.” And she gives a shout out to many of the artists who contributed so much. Her work here is an explosive example of evocative yet economical picture book writing.

All the while, the terrific illustrator Frank Morrison, always remarkable, outdoes himself. His trademark elongated figures burst off the page, grabbing the eye and capturing the excitement of Weatherford’s zippy couplets. Look at his James Brown, stretching on stage with frenetic grace. Look at those rich spray paint colors. I love the overhead shot of a crowd watching a breakdancer in action. Each pose, every close-up of a boom box, his drawings of hip-hop superstars such as Queen Latifah, the way he illustrates the unforgettable fashion. Author’s and illustrator’s notes add more insight, and those still learning about rap will find the ending glossary most helpful.

A great book from two talents at the height of their powers.