I look at several picture book biographies in any given year, and learn so much about a variety of cool people as a result. Here are four recent and/or upcoming titles that jumped out at me. They all contain striking illustrations and dynamic writing and teach readers about someone who has made an impact.
Thanks to these books I have met a young African-American child who became a civil rights hero when she took a historical ride on a merry-go-round. Learned about a 108-year-old Sikh man who became the oldest person ever to run a marathon. Admired the brave efforts of a Syrian ambulance driver dedicating his life to helping the people and animals in a war zone. And marveled at the way a slave (born near Greece 2,500) created many beloved fables that still engage and instruct today. Writing about such complex issues in such a concise manner that will grab young reader’s attention takes skill and talent. All five books are first-rate.
The Cat Man of Aleppo, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, written by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-1984813787, to be released: April 14, 2020, ARC reviewed.
This powerful look at Mohammad Alaa Alajeel starts with a note from Alaa himself. In his foreword, he tells of his love for cats and how this love drove his mission to save animals orphaned by the war that tore apart his beloved city Aleppo, and to help people as well. Writers Latham and Shamsi-Basha use the present tense when telling his story and this brings an emotional immediacy to the book. Using black ink on watercolor paper (the art was then scanned and colored using Adobe Photoshop), illustrator Shimizu effectively shows the city before and after the war starts: a shot of Alaa enjoying his once peaceful surroundings followed by images of despair and destruction. The book does not flinch from or water down the tragedy. The panoramic double page spreads capture the enormity of the situation, with one cat-packed scene especially breathtaking.
The Fabled Life of Aesop, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Ian Lendler, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-1328585523, to be released: March 10, 2020.
This beautifully designed account whisks readers back 2,500 years to introduce Aesop, the slave who, and I’m quoting the book jacket because I like this concise description, “uses his gift of storytelling to liberate himself from captivity.” Lendler says right up front that not a lot is known about Aesop–slaves’ lives often went undocumented. But he does his best to reveal what he knows, expertly weaving in a bunch of Aesop’s fables to deepen the story. The two time Caldecott Honor winning illustrator Zagarenski outdoes herself with her watercolors on watercolor paper with minor mixed media collage. I love how she uses a different artistic approaches for the scenes detailing Aesop’s life and the more fanciful depictions of the fables themselves. She slips some sly whimsical humor into her paintings of the stories (vultures with forks, for example).
Fauja Singh Keeps Going, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur, written by Simran Jeet Singh, foreward by Fauja Singh, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525555094, to be released: August 25, 2020, ARC reviewed.
This book doesn’t come out until late summer but I love it so much I want to talk about it now. I took up running just a few years ago (in my late ’40s) so I find this look at the rather incredible Fauja Singh especially inspirational. Singh didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 80s! And he became the first person over the age of 100 to complete a long-distance race. Not bad for a man who had trouble walking as a child. This beautiful story receives a top-notch treatment from writer Simran Jeet Singh, who laces his text with heart and empathy, and Baljinder Kauer, who created the illustrations digitally using hand drawings and collage pieces, brings tenderness to her warm, fluid art. The backmatter includes a photo of Fauja Singh at the age of 108. I’m in awe of this guy.
A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9781419736858, currently available.
Unlike the others in this post, A Ride to Remember is a first-person memoir with Sharon Langley (working with co-author Amy Nathan) looking back at how, on August 28, 1963, she became the first African-American child to ride on the carousel in Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. The book does a great job showing how unjust and unfair segregation was, and how protests and social activism effectively changed things. I love the way this book begins. The simple sentence “I love carousels” brings young readers in right away, and the description of carousels glimmers with poetic beauty: “They start together. They finish together, too. Nobody is first and nobody is last. Everyone is equal when you ride a carousel.” The great illustrator Floyd Cooper is at the top of his game here. Using his signature technique (oil erasure on an illustration board), Cooper creates spreads that have the hazy, poignant feel of a summer memory. Every detail is perfect and evocative–I love how he makes the carousel horses seem magical, and he catches that beautiful moment when Sharon gets to take that ride. The backmatter includes information about the now-closed park, where the carousel resides today, and terrific photographs of Langley then and now.