Picture books of the day: four fascinating looks at groundbreaking people

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.

Picture book of the day: Honeybee by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann is a buzz-worthy masterpiece

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, illustrated by Eric Rohmann, written by Candace Fleming, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442850.

Wow. Just wow. Just look at those details in those oil paintings. Study how the great Caldecott winning artist Eric Rohmann brings the reader up close and personal with the hard-working and extremely fuzzy honeybee. Think about the care he put into each illustration–all those minute details, all that fuzz, those eyes, that tongue, that antennae, those stripes. The vivid and exceptional non-fiction account Honeybee chronicles the short yet eventful life of one “Apis Mellifera” and tucks the spectator into the very center of the insect’s home. Apis and the other bees emerge from the pages as larger than life beings–the giant dimensions of this book allow budding apiarists (or those simply curious about the insect) to fully appreciate them. Rohmann’s approach is pure cinema: long shots, up close shots (at one point readers stand eye to eye with the lead bee). Just look at the pre-credit (pre-title page) sequence. In the first two moments, Apis emerges from her solitary cell–seemingly alone. And then Rohmann pulls back to show readers the full picture (several bees surround her). You can practically hear the buzzing.

Candace Fleming’s brilliant text gives the journey a driving immediacy that captivates with each and every page turn. She walks the reader through the honeybee’s busy days: emerging, chewing “through the wax cap of her solitary cell” and then eating pollen, cleaning the hive’s nursery, inspecting “the grub-like larvae” and so on. All the while Fleming teases the reader with the idea that soon this industrious bee will take flight. She spends each spread describing what Apis must do next and then asks is she ready for flying? Nope, not yet. This is non-fiction picture book writing at its very best–alive with details, bouncy and energetic, perfect for storytimes.

When the honeybee finally does take flight, the book offers a thrilling, panoramic vision, going even more widescreen than before, with a fold out page that whisks us out of the hive and into a field perfect for honeybees such as our Apis. I love the fourth wall breaking side glance she gives the reader as she approaches a flower. The book of course ends with the inevitable, a moment of sadness. Bees don’t live very long after all. Yet there is hope; the cycle of life continues (and will hopefully continue–we need honeybees).

The back matter is exceptional. A striking and informative anatomical drawing of the honeybee. Facts about bees. Honeybee of course would make a great double feature with their previous effort, the dynamic Sibert Honor winning Giant Squid. Honeybee is a must for nature fans and for those who love terrific art and vibrant writing. It’s a masterpiece.

Picture books of the day: celebrating how the arts can transform lives in 3 terrific works

As someone who loves books (obviously), music, film, and, well, the arts in general, I always appreciate it when talented picture book creators pay tribute to the transcendent nature of the arts. Three books (two award winners from 2019 and one upcoming 2020 title) offer vibrant illustrations and dynamic prose when zeroing in on what makes artistic expression so valuable.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln, illustrated by Rafael López, written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481487405 (released in 2019). 

A few weeks ago I attended the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia. At Midwinter the highlight for all us youth librarians is attending the Monday morning announcement of the Youth Media Awards. This event is epic with many excited librarians, educators and publishers shouting hurrays for books and people who managed to wow a bunch of awards committees. Dancing Hands deservedly received the 2020 Pura Belpré Best Illustrator Award for the great López who triumphs with this visually striking (he used a wide variety of materials) non-fiction picture book about how art can heal. Engle’s urgent compelling text whisks readers back to the mid-19th century when young Teresa must flee Venezuela for the war-torn United States. A talented piano player, she ends up soothing a grieving President Lincoln with her skilled playing. López does a fantastic job conveying a vast array of moods–somber wartime scenes, the girl’s nervousness when entering the room where she will play. The book reaches a near-euphoric high when she performs for the President and ebullient images swirl from the instrument, filling the double page spread with colorful wonder.

Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, written by Andrea J. Loney, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-1524718527 (released in 2019).

The 2020 Caldecott committee wisely chose this as a Caldecott Honor title. Rudy Gutierrez’s acrylic paintings electrify and dazzle, explode off the page. The story involves a young boy who can play a mean bass solo and wow his peers. However, when carrying the heavy cumbersome instrument across town, from school to home, he endures ridicule and scorn from a bunch of nasty people (and one breathtakingly stylized dog). He also has to zip through the rain. An out of order elevator serves as one last sigh-inducing “you have to be kidding me” punch to the gut. However, when he finally arrives home (after climbing many stairs), he finds four older musicians (his grandfather and three others) waiting for him to play music with them. Loney’s storytime-friendly text mostly consists of engaging musical sound effects–an oof here, a grrrrrrr! there, some plunk plunks. Gutierrez’s images dance, flow and soar across the pages. I love how he experiments with space as the boy journeys home. His paintings pulsate with a jittery energy–you can get lost in them. The book ends on a note of much-needed pure euphoria. Also, I must add how I love the endpapers. At the start we see a stylized modern art view of the boy’s orchestra that begins the book. At the end Guiterrez shows the kids playing with his grandfather’s quintet. Totally terrific.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, written by Suzanne Slade, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734113, to be released: April 7, 2020.

I just talked about two books that received some 2020 awards love. Here’s an upcoming release that I hope earns some awards love in January 2021 when the next batch of award winners are announced. This heartfelt and tender new book about the legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks covers a large portion of her early life and does so in a way that is clear and easy to understand for young readers. In 1950, the Chicago-based Brooks became the first Black person to win the Pulitzer, and Exquisite deftly chronicles what led the author to that crowning moment. A book about a great poet should offer strong writing, and Slade truly delivers with her concise, poetic text. Meanwhile, the fabulous illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera fills each of her acrylic paintings with beautiful sights and memorable emotion. Cabrera often adds a surreal spin to the words. For example, on the page that talks about how Brooks went to college and devoured countless poetry books there, Cabrera shows her legs walking on mountains of books. Visually, Cabrera keeps returning to the colorful clouds mentioned in the poem “Clouds” that Brooks wrote when she was only 15 (the book wisely includes it in its entirety in the back matter). Swirling pinks, blues, and whites fill the sky. And for those concerned with made-up dialogue in non-fiction picture book biographies, the back matter assures us that every quote can be traced back to an original source. This is a beautiful tribute to a great poet. Side note: I was able to see Brooks read twice, and she was amazing both times. This book truly captures her talent and spirit.

And the Oscar goes to…Hair Love? (that would be awesome)…some spoilers about the film

Hair Love, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, written by Matthew A. Cherry, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525553366.

Recently when Issa Rae and John Cho announced the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, a title familiar to picture book lovers popped up in the Best Animated Short category: Hair Love. Written by filmmaker/author/former NFL football player Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by the fabulous Vashti Harrison, the book Hair Love delights as a dad comically struggles to help his daughter Zuri achieve the hairstyle she wants with the help an online vlogger. We learn that she wants to look great for her mom who returns home at the end. From where we don’t know. Business trip? A visit to family or friends? High school reunion? Mom wears a scarf over her head. The book struck me as a sweet, cozy father-daughter bonding story. I didn’t notice any sadness bubbling under its colorful, bouncy surface.

I discovered that the short film could be found on YouTube. Of course I was curious to watch it (I would post a link here but I don’t want to violate any copyright laws). Financed in part by a megasuccessful Kickstarter campaign, and released by Sony Animation, the movie played before The Angry Birds 2 feature this past year. I didn’t make the trek to see that film in the theater so I missed Hair Love when it played on the big screen.

I put the film on expecting a fairly straightforward adaptation of the book. Sort of like one of those great animated Weston Woods adaptations that remain faithful to the text while adding some inventive spins to the illustrations. However, I soon discovered that the movie version of Hair Love veers into a surprisingly different direction and has an emotional ending that serves as a punch to the gut (the movie earns its tears honestly).

The movie starts off capturing the book’s funny spirit: little girl wakes up, needs to fix her hair that resists fixing while her cat watches with deadpan expressions. Dad steps in to help, but finds the process, oh, a bit challenging. But those familiar with the book start noticing significant differences from the book. Cherry’s text is gone. Most of the action is wordless, accompanied by sound effects and music cues. We only hear the voice of an online hairstyle vlogger (voiced by Issa Rae) who turns out to be Zuri’s mom. Zuri and dad finally succeed while watching one of the helpful videos. We expect mom to come home at this point, but instead Zuri and father head out to see mom. I won’t spoil the ending, but let me just say, it adds a whole other layer of meaning to the story. When I returned to the book after watching the movie I looked at everything from a new POV thanks to the viewing experience.

I highly recommend both the book and the movie. They complement each other. It’s interesting that the movie does not mention the book (unless I missed the credit). Cherry wrote and co-directed the film. Harrison receives a character designer credit.

The Oscars happen on Sunday, February 9. It would be cool if Cherry gets to take the stage and accept an Oscar for this moving animated short that is also a terrific, affirming picture book.