Kathleen Krull’s many picture books exemplify the best kind of narrative nonfiction for our students—accurate, well-researched, lively texts enhanced by large, handsome illustrations. Her exemplary biographies “take old stories of famous people and…make them new for kids today.” In an interview the author commented, “We’re all secretly People magazine readers at heart” and confessed to salting her biographies with “gossipy details” about her subjects, using them as “hooks” to teach her readers about history and “things that [educators] want them to know about…famous people—why they’re so respected, what their accomplishments were.” Highlighted here is a sampling of Krull’s titles suited for shared reading in the upper elementary grades.
What kid doesn’t love a trip to the zoo? What’s New? The Zoo! A Zippy History of Zoos (Scholastic, 2014; Gr 2-5) is a picture book survey of these beloved institutions from 4400 years ago in ancient Sumer to modern-day cage-free environments. “All throughout history, zoos have been built for so many reasons. To make important people feel more important. To satisfy our longing for contact with nature. To educate, amuse, and entertain. To make us gasp with awe. To study and protect animals.” The book offers an illustrated narrative timeline of these menageries, featuring Krull’s signature anecdotal style.
Readers will chuckle and want to imitate the King of Ur as he roars pompously at a skeptical lion. The image of France’s first giraffe parading through the countryside in a red waterproof cape as well as mention of the new hairdo—à la Girafe—may encourage youngsters to invent their own creature-inspired hairstyles. A page about Jumbo the elephant, who “…gorges on vast amounts of whiskey, onions, apples, and cakes, and grows to six and a half tons” reveals that when P.T. Barnum purchased the adored beast for his circus, 100,000 children wrote to Queen Victoria to stop the sale. Ask your students what they would say to the queen if asked to write to her about the impending sale of the colossal animal.
Marcellus Hall’s appealing and humorous acrylic-and-watercolor paintings make What’s New? a perfect book for sharing. One spread depicts 15 American buffalo roaming about New York City’s Grand Central Station with comical results. (The animals were waiting for the train to Oklahoma—the first successful effort to reintroduce an endangered species to its original home.) Students can use their imaginations to write about an encounter with a buffalo or other creature in a busy city or research an endangered animal. Of course, a class trip to the local zoo is sure to stir other creative endeavors.
Lucky young Ted Geisel grew up only six blocks from his local zoo—and his father ran it! In The Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Become Dr. Seuss (Random, 2004; Gr 3-5), illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, Krull explores the boyhood of one of our country’s most cherished children’s authors. While other serviceable biographies of Geisel exist, this beautiful, detailed description of his early life and career will serve as an entertaining read aloud. Each spread features a page of text opposite a colorful, nostalgic painting along with cartoon thumbnails of favorite Seuss characters. Anecdotes reveal a lively, curious child who named his first stuffed animal “Theophrastus.” Children may want to speculate about the origins of such an unusual name and come up with their own inspired names for a few plush toys.
The book also explains how the young artist’s drawing often got him in trouble, whether it was creating art for his bedroom walls or doodling at school. Needless to say, this author/illustrator’s early life will be an inspiration to children who will relate to his playful, mischievous beginnings and enjoy creating their own silly doodles and accompanying rhymes.
Another inventive child was Philo Farnsworth, introduced to middle grade readers in The Boy Who Invented TV (Knopf, 2009; Gr 2-5), catalogued in the 621s under the Dewey Decimal system. Farnsworth showed an interest in mechanics as early as age three, and first envisioned how to transmit images electronically while in a potato field in Idaho.
Krull invites readers to imagine what life was like in the early 20th century when Farnsworth was a boy. “What about fun? Movies—no. Radio—no…There was music, if you played your own instruments. There were no malls…When you had enough money saved…you ordered from the ‘wish book’—the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog.” Students can come up with a list of leisure activities they would enjoy in a world without technology, which may lead them to the library for a good book. While there, they can look at a Sears catalog from 100 years ago and compare prices and products now and then.
The endpapers of Boy feature photographs of televisions—from the consoles of the ’50s to the flat screens of today. Ask students to research the evolution of other common electronics or draw or create their own practical or wacky inventions. Along with The Boy, share Marc McCutcheon’s The Kid Who Named Pluto and the Stories of Other Extraordinary Young People in Science (Chronicle, 2004) or Don Wulffson’s Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions (Holt, 2000).
Pre-dating Farnsworth, Erik Weisz, otherwise known as “Houdini,” knew how to entertain himself—as well as the rest of the world. In Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King (Walker, 2005; Gr 2-5), Krull chronicles the life and escapades of the renowned magician from his childhood backyard trapeze act to his dramatic escapes in handcuffs or straitjacket. Readers learn that “Houdini’s journey to fame really started with a book,” a biography of the founder of modern magic, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin; what better incentive to encourage kids to read?
Eric Velasquez’s magnificent accompanying oil paintings turn the book into a production; crimson curtains open to reveal astounding illusions such as “The Metamorphosis” in which Houdini is placed in a bag in a box and magically trades places with his wife stationed outside the box, or his “Underwater Handcuff Release.” A master of ceremonies appears downstage right, his facial expressions reflecting the audience’s surprise and amazement. After the last feat, he tells readers, “And we truly hope you enjoyed his show!!!”
Show students clips from the PBS film American Experience: Houdini (2000), and offer them Janice Weaver’s Harry Houdini: The Legend of the World’s Greatest Escape Artist (Abrams, 2011) and David Adler and Michael S. Adler’s A Picture Book of Harry Houdini (Holiday House, 2010). Have plenty of magic books on hand and stage a show; divide students into groups and allow each group to perform one or two tricks. Take the show on the road throughout the school and publish an illustrated class “how-to” book with step-by-step instructions to some of the favorite illusions. Find the magic books on the same shelf as some of these historical biographies: Dewey Decimal, 793.8.
On a nearby library shelf at Dewey 782.4, locate The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny) (HMH, 2013; Gr 3-5) for a different type of entertainment. Beatle fans from the beginning, Krull and her husband Paul Brewer, have co-authored a lively, entertaining history of this favorite foursome illustrated with Stacy Innerst’s lighthearted acrylic-and-ink caricatures. “The songs were fantastic, but the lads themselves were so cool, so funny, so fab—short for fabulous—that reporters started calling them the Fab Four.” Their fan club of 35 grew to 40,000 in less than a year; their debut on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 “turned out to be the most-watched TV show in history.”
Before they were the Beatles, they considered such names as “The Blackjacks,” “The Nerk Twins,” “The Rainbows,” and “Long John Silver and the Pieces of Eight.” Ask students to come up with names for their own real or imagined bands. The source list includes several excellent web sites where students can view photos and videos of the band as well as primary source accounts from early fans. Play some hits or albums and distribute song lyrics for a class sing-along. Watch the film A Hard Day’s Night to give the kids a first-hand look at the Beatles’ sense of humor. Students can research and report on their own favorite performers’ beginnings and share the music with the class. Pair with Doreen Rappaport’s John’s Secret Dreams: The Life of John Lennon (Hyperion, 2004) for another view of the band.
With the 2016 presidential election looming, children may be interested to read Krull’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight (S & S, 2008) to understand how a young girl’s lofty ambition and determination helped create a national leader. They may be surprised to learn that Clinton was not the first woman to aspire to become our nation’s Chief Executive. The author tells that story in A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull (Walker, 2006). Another inspiring account of a woman who refused to hold back is Krull’s Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman (Harcourt, 1996). This story of how a sickly little girl born premature, poor, and black, who couldn’t walk until she was 12, overcame all obstacles to become a gold medal Olympic athlete, will speak to and empower many young readers.
The history of hair, Jim Henson, L. Frank Baum, Pocahontas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, are just some of the other fascinating subjects handled in Krull’s picture books. Her chapter book series for middle school readers, “Giants of Science,” offers the same engaging treatment as her picture books, with a serious dose of scientific theory as well. Subjects include Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. Teachers looking for quality nonfiction as they implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will discover in this sampling of titles that Kathleen Krull has been writing fascinating informational titles for young readers decades before the CCSS became a household word.
Barbara Auerbach is a librarian at P.S. 217 in Brooklyn, NY
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