April 23, 2017

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The Stuff of Stars | New Picture Book Biographies

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It’s been a stellar season for nonfiction, particularly for picture book biographies. These appealing and carefully researched examples of the genre are perfect for introducing a broad range of readers to their subjects and leading students to further inquiry.

benfranklinbigsplashBarb Rosenstock’s Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, Sept. 2014; K-Gr 3) focuses on the great man as a rambunctious and curious 11-year-old. While the common wisdom of the day, even among sailors, was that swimming would make you sick, Ben was in his element in the water and took to Boston’s Charles River like an otter. He observed the shapes and habits of fish and other creatures and, through trial and error, devised a pair of swim fins and sandals to help propel him through the water faster. Rosenstock’s lively and alliterative text informs readers that even though his inventions didn’t work out exactly as he hoped, “he wouldn’t stop seeking, studying, and struggling until he SUCCEEDED.” S.D. Schindler’s splashy, richly detailed ink-and-watercolor illustrations set the tone for the spirited text and carry the day. Back matter includes an author’s note, a pictorial spread of Franklin’s many inventions, and an extensive time line and list of resources.

therightwordJen Bryant and Melissa Sweet work their brand of picture book magic with a thoroughly engrossing and visually gorgeous bio of the 19th-century (he was born in 1779, but all of his work was in the 1800s) wordsmith Peter Mark Roget in The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Eerdmans, Sept. 2014; Gr 2-5). They look at how a lonely, erudite boy with a compulsion of list-making went from “scribbling” to using his precise rows of words to gain confidence and create order in his world. He continued his predilection even after becoming a successful doctor and having a family. Bryant states, “Long ago Peter had discovered the power of words. Now he believed that everyone should have this power—everyone should be able to find the right word whenever they needed it.” Thus, Roget’s Thesaurus was born. For such a quiet, seemingly esoteric topic, the treatment is anything but. Sweet’s trademark watercolor, collage, and mixed-media artwork is bold and beautiful, incorporating period botanical, astrological, and zoological prints. Snippets from thesauruses appear throughout the collages and the hand-lettered lists. This is a tailor-made introduction to the origins and history of language, its usage, and development over time. The exemplary back matter makes it a must-have for any “540: Teacher, instructor, educator, mentor, master, etc.” or lover of words.

starstuffStephanie Roth Sisson’s Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos (Roaring Brook, Oct. 2014; Gr 1-3) begins with Carl Sagan, an already curious and imaginative boy, going to the 1939 World’s Fair with his parents. It was this jaunt outside his familiar Brooklyn, NY,  neighborhood that sparked and propelled his interest in astronomy and in exploring the universe. The author touches on his years of study and academic work, but the main thrust of the book is Sagan’s enthusiasm for what he learned about the stars, planets, and the beginnings of life. “He wanted everyone to understand so that they could feel like a part of the stars as he did.” The text concludes with his work on the Voyager mission and the greetings they included as they journeyed into interstellar space.

Sisson’s mixed-media largely cartoon-style art has enormous child appeal and captures the Sagan’s passion for science as well as his imagination and indomitable sense of wonder. An author’s note, bibliography, and source notes round out the presentation.

alicewatersJacqueline Briggs Martin’s Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious (Readers to Eaters, Aug., 2014; Gr 2-4) is a joyous introduction to the life of the famous chef and leader of the fresh food movement. The book documents her lifelong devotion to finding just the right fresh ingredients and blending them to create “a symphony of flavor” for her family and friends, and ultimately her customers at her renowned restaurant Chez Panisse.

Waters embraced the ongoing project Edible Schoolyard, which allows children to grow their own food and learn to cook it. Martin explains that according to the chef, “kids who know good food, who grow, gather, and share good food, will care about the soil, care about farmers, care about everyone having enough to eat. Kids who get to Delicious can change the world.” Hayelin Choi’s delightful artwork was created in brush and black ink, scanned digitally and colored using Adobe Photoshop. Her full-bleed graphic compositions are exuberant and kid-friendly. An afterword by Waters, an author’s note, and a bibliography and list of resources are the icing on the cake.

helloimjohnnycashIt takes an oversize volume to capture the life of a towering musical icon and G. Neri’s Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (Candlewick, Sept. 2014; Gr 3-5) is just such an offering. Neri’s powerful free verse text tells the Man in Black’s life story, incorporating his own words and lyrics for emphasis. It documents the extreme poverty into which Cash was born and the role that music, religion, and family played throughout his youth. When he was too young to join the rest of the family in the cotton fields, his father bought him a radio for company and he never turned it off. He learned every song he heard and would sing all the words to anyone who would listen. His mother recognized that he had a gift, but it took years of hard work and determination to achieve his dream.

A.G. Ford’s dramatic and captivating full-bleed oil paintings draw readers into this compelling, all-American story and highlight intimate details. A lengthy prose note offers “More about Johnny Cash,” followed by an annotated time line of “Historical Events in Johnny’s Lifetime,” a discography, and a bibliography. A thoroughly accessible and engaging look at the country music legend.

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Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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