November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tell Me a (Life) Story: Biographies | Series Made Simple Fall 2014

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How many ways can you tell a life story? There are a variety of styles, as the books in this collection prove. “The Great Minds of Science” integrates cultural and biographical information seamlessly, while “Writers and Their Times” divides personal and historical material into distinct sections. “Dynamic Duos” keep readers engaged by bouncing two life stories off of each other—whether they are collaborators or rivals. “The Wizards of Technology” presents the personality traits and career arcs of individuals behind social media while also subtly offering business tips to aspiring entrepreneurs. The varied, diverse approaches of these texts supports the Common Core Curriculum’s goal of increasing nonfiction’s relevance and readability across disciplines. Although there are countless ways to tell a story, all successful ones do the same thing: they help us connect to meaningful events, discoveries, and creations through compelling human experiences.

Preschool to Grade 4

Bailer, Darice. Michelangelo. ISBN 9781626873520.

––––. Pablo Picasso. ISBN 9781626873537.

––––. Rembrandt. ISBN 9781626873544.

Cernak, Linda. Edgar Degas. ISBN 9781626873490.

––––. Leonardo da Vinci. ISBN 9781626873513.

––––. Mary Cassatt. ISBN 9781626873506.

––––. Vincent van Gogh. ISBN 9781626873551.

Krieg, Katherine. Claude Monet. ISBN 9781626873483.

ea vol: illus. by JT Morrow. 24p. (The World’s Greatest Artists). further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. The Child’s World. 2014. lib. ed. $28.50.

Gr 3-5 –This series offers an ideal blend of excellent writing and strong historical and technical information about the materials and methods of art. It is unfortunate that there is only one woman artist featured here (Mary Cassatt), but the selection is rich in other ways. Each page includes attractive reproductions of masterpieces sprinkled with snarky cartoon commentary (“Maybe he should use more colors!” says a child on the cover of Rembrandt, studying a muddy self-portrait of the artist). The authors have skillfully interjected a tone of humor into the solid, useful information: the cartoons capture the authentic voice of young viewers, who might not immediately appreciate fine art, while the narrative voice is earnest and scholarly, pushing children toward deeper analysis. The authors excel at using concrete sensory detail to lead kids through images. If paired with a series that includes more women and artists of color, these will be valued staples.

Cooke, Tim. Explore with Marco Polo. ISBN 9780778714286; ISBN 9780778714347.

Hyde, Natalie. Explore with Leif Eriksson. ISBN 9780778714279; ISBN 9780778714330.

O’Brien, Cynthia. Explore with Ponce de León. ISBN 9780778714293; ISBN 9780778714354.

––––. Explore with Sieur de La Salle. ISBN 9780778714309; ISBN 9780778714361.

Powell, Marie. Explore with Ferdinand Magellan. ISBN 9780778714255; ISBN 9780778714316.

––––. Explore with Jacques Cartier. ISBN 9780778714262; ISBN 9780778714323.

ea vol: 32p. (Travel with the Great Explorers). chron. further reading. glossary. index. reprods. websites. Crabtree. 2014. lib. ed. $27.60. pap. $9.95.

Gr 2-4 –This flawed, poorly designed series introduces the earliest world explorers and their varied destinations. Their stories are told through sound bites of narrative and interspersed frantically with pullouts. Some pages are composed entirely of sidebars. These books may be designed for readers influenced by social media, but they neglect narrative entirely, and kids will struggle to find a central textual thread amid the blasts of information competing for their attention. The series does a disservice to the historical images by including tiny versions, clustered too closely together, and there’s often a disconnect between text and images. The authors don’t always let readers come to their own conclusions. For example, Ferdinand Magellan is labeled as “pig headed” without any explanatory anecdotes or examples. Give these titles a pass.

Green, Sara. Bill Gates. ISBN 9781600149870; ISBN 9781612119526.

––––. Elon Musk. ISBN 9781600149887; ISBN 9781612119533.

––––. Jeff Bezos. ISBN 9781600149894; ISBN 9781612119540.

––––. Larry Page. ISBN 9781600149900; ISBN 9781612119557.

––––. Marissa Mayer. ISBN 9781600149917; ISBN 9781612119564.

––––. Mark Zuckerberg. ISBN 9781600149924; ISBN 9781612119571.

––––. Sergey Brin. ISBN 9781600149931; ISBN 9781612119588.

––––. Steve Jobs. ISBN 9781600149948; ISBN 9781612119595.

ea vol: 24p. (Tech Icons). chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. Bellwether. 2014. lib. ed. $22.95. ebk. $22.95.

Gr 3-5 –The books are well organized, featuring sidebars full of fascinating tidbits about these tech icons’ hobbies and family histories. Each profile mentions the individual’s salary, as well as their charitable contributions. Readers get a clear sense of the arc of their lives, from childhood experiences to higher education. Those interested in technology fields will come away with an understanding of conventional and unconventional paths to success. Graphic design is strong, with multiple photos of each person at different ages (one winner: Jeff Bezos posing in a garage full of books—the first Amazon retail warehouse). However, the writing is serviceable, and at times, one craves more elaboration. For instance, we learn that premed student Marissa Mayer became “bored” with coursework in brain surgery, but never find out why, which seems a missed opportunity to develop the unfolding of her career path.

Llanas, Sheila Griffin. Caleb Davis Bradham: Pepsi-Cola Inventor. ISBN 9781624033155; ISBN 9781629683904.

––––. Colonel Harland Sanders: KFC Creator. ISBN 9781624033186; ISBN 9781629683935.

––––. Dave Thomas: Wendy’s Founder. ISBN 9781624033193; ISBN 9781629683942.

––––. Ettore Boiardi: Chef Boyardee Manufacturer. ISBN 9781624033148; ISBN 9781629683898.

––––. John Pemberton: Coca-Cola Developer. ISBN 9781624033179; ISBN 9781629683928.

––––. Tom Monaghan: Domino’s Pizza Innovator. ISBN 9781624033162; ISBN 9781629683911.

ea vol: 32p. (Food Dudes Set 2). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. ABDO. 2014. lib. ed. $27.07. ebk. $27.07.

Gr 3-5 –This series about fast-food inventors and entrepreneurs serves up a surprisingly rich informational feast. Each book explores the cultural context of the innovator in question, exploring the rationale for creating the food and exploring why America responded so enthusiastically to it. Engaging chapter headings, such as “Tough Childhood” and “A Low Point,” will help readers connect to the inventors’ human struggles. Pemberton’s biography about the invention of Coca-Cola teaches students about Prohibition and medicinal uses of soda in the 1920s. Vintage photos add to the charm of this volume. As a whole, the design is clean, bright, and engaging. Although the subject is fast food, these books are nutritious in quality. Highly recommended for reluctant readers.

Zaczek, Iain. Édouard Manet. ISBN 9781482415032.

––––. Georges Seurat. ISBN 9781482414554.

––––. Leonardo da Vinci. ISBN 9781 482415001.

––––. Mary Cassatt. ISBN 9781482415049.

––––. Paul Cézanne. ISBN 9781482415025.

––––. Vincent van Gogh. ISBN 9781482415056.

ea vol: 32p. (Great Artists). further reading. glossary. index. photos. Gareth Stevens. 2014. lib. ed. $26.60.

Gr 3-5 –These books organize biographical material around the artists’ works. They offer practical tips in the “How to Paint Like…” chapters. The writing is clear but will not necessarily grab readers. For example, Zaczek writes that van Gogh “lost interest” in his work for a firm that sold art, a vague and incomplete explanation of his failure in the working world. This book uses cartoons ineffectively, belittling serious statements by putting them in comic book–like speech bubbles. The graphics may confuse readers, and it is difficult to determine the focus of some pages, since there is no hierarchy in the size of the sidebars. The statement that van Gogh’s “first sign of mental illness” was during his residence with Gaugin seems inaccurate; diary entries from before this period certainly reveal depression. The craftsmanship of these texts seems rushed. Skip these titles.

Grades 5 & Up

Andersen, Richard. Ernest Hemingway and World War I. ISBN 9781627128094.

Clinton, Greg. Willa Cather and Westward Expansion. ISBN 9781627128063.

Kampff, Joseph. Ray Bradbury and the Cold War. ISBN 9781627128193.

Morretta, Alison. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age. ISBN 9781627128155.

––––. Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Abolitionist Movement. ISBN 9781627128032.

––––. John Steinbeck and the Great Depression. ISBN 9781627128124.

ea vol: 112p. (Writers and their Times). bibliog. chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Cavendish Square. 2014. lib. ed. $42.79.

Gr 9 Up –Densely historical and appealingly organized, these texts are divided into two halves—the writer’s cultural context and his or her biography. Refreshingly, these biographies don’t follow the predictable pattern of birth, childhood, education, and so on. Historical time lines are helpful for visual learners. The authors’ works are also broken down by genre, with the titles of individual influential essays listed—a valuable resource for researchers. Analyses of “major characters” in these novelists’ books are expertly written. Fitzgerald’s biography includes compelling photos of the writer, as well as archival images that bring his world to life. Morretta demonstrates skill in exploring Fitzgerald’s motivations, influences, and inspiration, demonstrating the psychological complexity and richness that are hallmarks of this series. Highly recommended.

Anderson, Jennifer Joline. Albert Einstein: Revolutionary Physicist. ISBN 9781624033797; ISBN 9781629684796.

Kenney, Karen Latchana. Stephen Hawking: Extraordinary Theoretical Physicist. ISBN 9781624033810; ISBN 9781629684819.

Krieg, Katherine. Marie Curie: Physics and Chemistry Pioneer. ISBN 9781624033773; ISBN 9781629684772.

––––. Thomas Edison: World-Changing Inventor. ISBN 9781624033780; ISBN 9781629684789.

Mooney, Carla. Isaac Newton: Genius Mathematician and Physicist. ISBN 9781624033827; ISBN 9781629684826.

Sepahban, Lois. Temple Grandin: Inspiring Animal-Behavior Scientist. ISBN 9781624033803; ISBN 9781629684802.

ea vol: 48p. (Great Minds of Science). further reading. glossary. index. photos. ABDO. 2014. lib. ed. $32.79. ebk. $32.79.

Gr 4-6 –Disregard the uninspiring cover designs—this series is a winner. Strong writing is peppered with dramatic details that will bring scientific discoveries to life. Students can develop analytical Common Core skills through sidebar questions. “Consider Your Audience” asks readers to rewrite a passage for a new audience: a challenging and creative task. Archival photos and well-drawn diagrams, such as Isaac Newton’s prisms of light, will appeal to visual learners. Students will appreciate information that Newton was disinterested in school but loved to build mousetraps and windmills. There is also a plethora of fun and engaging facts; for instance, Newton conducted science experiments on himself—one of which included piercing his own eyeballs. Students will learn about the different accomplishments of each scientist while joining them on the often tumultuous journey to success. A staple for libraries.

Anniss, Matt. James Watson and Francis Crick. ISBN 9781482414714.

––––. Jane Goodall and Mary Leakey. ISBN 9781482414721.

Colson, Mary. Albert Einstein and Sir Arthur Eddington. ISBN 9781482414707.

––––. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. ISBN 9781482414691.

Hardyman, Robyn. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. ISBN 9781482414738.

––––. Pierre and Marie Curie. ISBN 9781482414745.

ea vol: 48p. (Dynamic Duos of Science). further reading. glossary. index. photos. Gareth Stevens. 2014. lib. ed. $31.95.

Gr 4-6 –This series stands out for its attractive graphics and ability to make complex concepts accessible. The authors have done an excellent job of selecting key quotes from the scientists’ writings that young readers can understand (provided in sidebars titled “In Their Own Words”). One might not assume that an elementary-school student would be able to appreciate figures such as Charles Darwin or Nikola Tesla, but this set makes it possible. Readers will get a real feel for these scientists and their voices. Sticky subjects such as creationism vs. evolution are handled in a sensitive, evenhanded way. Stunning photos illustrate concepts beautifully. For example, a photo of a duckbill platypus supports descriptions of evolution in the animal kingdom. The dual biography is a particularly ingenious feature. Readers learn that Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin, rivals as well as supporters, shared much of the same information, making similar discoveries. Reading their parallel stories will let children see how different people solve the same problems. Original takes on science biographies.

Borisovna, Gabrielle. Carl Sagan. ISBN 9781477776810.

Culp, Jennifer. Neil deGrasse Tyson. ISBN 9781477776919.

Hand, Carol. Jane Goodall. ISBN 9781477776858.

Kamberg, Mary-Lane. Stephen Hawking. ISBN 9781477776834.

McCormick, Lisa Wade. Albert Einstein. ISBN 9781477776872.

Wolny, Philip. Isaac Asimov. ISBN 9781477776896.

ea vol: 112p. (Great Science Writers). bibliog. further reading. index. photos. websites. Rosen Young Adult. 2014. lib. ed. $34.60.

Gr 10 Up –Even famous science experts struggle in school, as readers learn in this series, which sheds light on the human face of geniuses. Readers will be intrigued to learn, for example, that Jane Goodall kept pet guinea pigs as a child. Some titles emphasize the science writers’ literary background more than others. For example, Goodall’s book focuses heavily on her work as a scientist, while Isaac Asimov’s delves into his literary influences and childhood writings. Quotes from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s writing are scattered throughout his biography, helping students connect to his voice. Readers will be swept away by his journey as an African American astrophysicist who first stargazed atop a Bronx apartment building and later walked dogs to earn money for a telescope. Throughout his biography, Tyson’s passion for space exploration is palpable. Dynamic, understated artwork does not distract from excellent writing here. Strong additions.

Doak, Robin S. Dian Fossey: Friend to Africa’s Gorillas. ISBN 9781484604687.

––––. Jane Goodall: Chimpanzee Protector. ISBN 9781484604694.

Fertig, Dennis. Sylvia Earle: Ocean Explorer. ISBN 9781484604700.

Hile, Lori. Rachel Carson: Environmental Pioneer. ISBN 9781484604717.

ea vol: 48p. (Women in Conservation). chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Heinemann-Raintree. 2014. lib. ed. $32.65.

Gr 5-8 –Here we meet two women devoted to primates and two with a passion for the sea (one devoted exclusively to it and the other concerned with the ocean and environment in general). The design is strong, with photos that truly capture these women’s personalities. Long headings that contain questions are helpful: “What impact did Fossey’s work have on animal conservation causes?” The “Did you know?” sidebars offer related scientific facts as well as powerful biographical details that deserve their own space, such as Rachel Carson’s habit for signing her articles with her initials to hide her gender. Dian Fossey’s life trajectory will be particularly poignant to those who love animals but struggle in science. (Fossey flunked out of pre-veterinary courses and became an occupational therapist before finding her way to the jungles of Africa.) Students will appreciate her dedication—2000 hours of observing gorillas. The graphics present a time line of primate development and maps that are as excellent and informative as the rest of this must-have series.

Gold, Susan Dudley. Kathryn Bigelow. ISBN 9781627129398.

––––. Sofia Coppola. ISBN 9781627129459.

Mara, Wil. Clint Eastwood. ISBN 9781627129480.

––––. James Cameron. ISBN 9781627129510.

––––. Peter Jackson. ISBN 9781627129428.

––––. Steven Spielberg. ISBN 978162 7129367.

ea vol: 80p. (Great Filmmakers). bibliog. filmog. further reading. index. notes. photos. websites. Cavendish Square. 2014. lib. ed. $35.64.

Gr 5-8 –Written in a snappy, journalistic style, these texts offer rich, nuanced views of the filmmakers’ lives. They especially shine when spotlighting the ways in which failures can lead to successes. For example, James Cameron believes he gained wisdom from a low point in his life when working as a school janitor, and Sofia Coppola feels that her acting—panned by critics—helped her become a better director. The Kathryn Bigelow book is especially full of winning and unexpected details; for instance, she once lived in a bank vault and drove a taxi. We learn that one of her artistic influences was Jackson Pollock, whose paintings are reproduced here. This series is more text-heavy than others, but the images included are knockouts. Students will come away with a strong cultural understanding both of film and the other art forms that shape it.

Jackson, Aurelia. Amazon®: How Jeff Bezos Built the World’s Largest Online Store. ISBN 9781422231791.

––––. Disney’s Pixar®: How Steve Jobs Changed Hollywood. ISBN 9781422231807.

––––. Google®: How Larry Page & Sergey Brin Changed the Way We Search the Web. ISBN 9781422231821.

––––. Instagram®: How Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger Changed the Way We Take and Share Photos. ISBN 9781422231838.

––––. Netflix®: How Reed Hastings Changed the Way We Watch Movies & TV. ISBN 9781422231845.

––––. Tumblr®: How David Karp Changed the Way We Blog. ISBN 9781422231869.

Scott, Celicia. Facebook®: How Mark Zuckerberg Connected More Than a Billion Friends. ISBN 9781422231814.

––––. Twitter®: How Jack Dorsey Changed the Way We Communicate. ISBN 9781422231876.

––––. YouTube®: How Steve Chen Changed the Way We Watch Videos. ISBN 9781422231883.

Waters, Rosa. Pinterest®: How Ben Silbermann & Evan Sharp Changed the Way We Share What We Love. ISBN 9781422231852.

ea vol: 64p. (Wizards of Technology). ebook available. further reading. glossary. photos. websites. Mason Crest. 2014. Tr. $23.95.

Gr 9 Up –This series introduces readers to the people who created well-known social media and entertainment products. Written with an intense business focus, they analyze why Netflix and others brands are popular and illustrate their inventors’ creative journeys. At times, conceptual graphics seem geared toward a business audience rather than an educational arena. For example, an image of people floating above an outstretched palm is meant to convey that Reed struggled to manage his employees, but it may not be clear to students. Well-written study questions encourage readers to return to the text and skim for relevant passages. Some questions call upon students to conduct Internet research or analyze different business models. These texts provide a realistic view of how adults learn and grow in the working world, learning from their mistakes. Students will understand what an innovator or entrepreneur is and how personal challenges—such as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s speech impediment—can lead to new forms of communication. An inspiring series.


Biographies for young people are becoming more sophisticated and multifaceted. In Child’s World’s “The World’s Greatest Artists,” students come away not only with a life story but also with art history and tips for art-making. ABDO’s “Food Dudes,” Bellwether’s “Tech Icons” and Mason Crest’s “Wizards of Technology” offer career guidance through real-life examples. Cavendish’s “Writers and Their Times,” a text worthy of a college literature class, will prepare high school students to consider the complex forces that converge to create a work of literature. Rosen Young Adult’s “Great Science Writers,” which offers the only nonwhite subject in the entire crop of books, is uniformly excellent. Although we want to see more diversity in the subjects chosen here, these newly published biographies are well crafted and in line with students’ interests and the Common Core. Here’s hoping the genre continues improving.

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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