April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Picture Book Biographies | Portals to the Past

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Well-researched and enlightening, these engaging picture book biographies pair outstanding artwork with stellar storytelling to describe the lives and times of an assortment of noteworthy individuals. Whether written from the viewpoint of a beloved family member, told like a swashbuckling adventure tale, or zeroing in on a particular experience or event, each title takes a unique and creative approach to conveying information. Superb choices for sharing aloud or reading independently, these offerings make useful starting points for investigations of subjects that span the curriculum. Use them to explore the motivations and accomplishments of remarkable men and women and invite further research, introduce studies of historical periods and social movements, and engender enthusiasm for a literary genre that offers insights about ourselves and the world around us.

What Inspires You?
Natalie S. Bober’s story about Robert Frost (1874-1963) is told from the viewpoint of the wordsmith’s eldest daughter. Proudly proclaiming Papa Is a Poet (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Bks., 2013; Gr 3-5), 15-year-old Lesley reminisces about her younger years spent on Derry Farm in New Hampshire, an idyllic setting that enabled Frost to find his voice and fueled many of his works. Homeschooled by their parents, the children were encouraged to explore and appreciate the beauty of their surroundings as well as the wonders of literature and creative writing. The first-person narration, adapted from the real-life Lesley’s childhood journal, shimmers with lyrical descriptions of days that “were ordinary but meaningful. The cupboard was often bare, yet life was filled to the brim.” Quotes from Frost’s poems are smoothly integrated into the tale, painting a portrait of a man who loved his family dearly, did things his own way, and had the fortitude to choose the road “less traveled”—the life of a poet. Rebecca Gibbon’s folksy spring-hued paintings set the scene and enhance the mood of intimacy. A biographical note and 12 of Frost’s poems are appended, some of which are quoted in the text, making a connection for readers between the inspiration found in day-to-day moments and celebrated literary works.

Like Frost, Horace Pippin (1888-1946), a self-taught African American painter, transformed his everyday experiences and observations into compelling works of art. Jen Bryant’s lyrically written biography introduces Pippin’s penchant for painting “everyday scenes in natural colors” and then adding A Splash of Red (Knopf, 2013; Gr 3-6). The phrase, “Make a picture for us, Horace!,” becomes a refrain as Pippin rendered artworks for loved ones and classmates as a boy, for other coal-shoveling or crate-lifting manual laborers after he quit school to support his family, for fellow soldiers in the trenches of France after he enlisted in the army. Though a bullet wound to his right arm left him unable to paint—or work—his fingers still “itched to draw,” and he found a way to answer his inner calling while struggling to make a living. Pippin’s quotes, as eloquent and unpretentious as his artwork (“Pictures just come to my mind…and I tell my heart to go ahead”), are integrated into Melissa Sweet’s lovely mixed-media illustrations, which echo her subject’s folksy style, lush color palette, and judicious use of red. Filled with hard times and hope, Pippin’s life story is as amazing as his paintings. View works by the artist (presented on the endpapers or easily accessible online) to initiate classroom discussion of their style and emotional impact, as well as their snapshot-of-history subject matter.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (Roaring Brook, 2013; Gr 3-5) commemorates the origins of one of today’s most popular art forms. Born in Jamaica in 1955, Clive Campbell loved all kinds of music and longed to become a DJ, a dream that he began making a reality after he moved to the Bronx, NY, as a teenager. Growing to a height that had him nicknamed “Hercules,” he revved up his father’s “monster sound system” and started spinning records at parties. When he noticed that people “danced crazy hard” during lyric-free breaks in songs when “the music bumped and thumped,” Herc used two turntables to expand the brief interludes into lengthy jams, chanting the names of friends and shouting rhymes throughout. Taken to local streets and parks, his music inspired everyone, even the members of neighborhood street gangs, to jump in and show off their moves. Laban Carrick Hill’s rhythmical narrative and Theodore Taylor III’s dynamic illustrations—sleek cartoons filled with angular lines and supple break-dance “gymnastics”—spotlight a cultural movement and offer props to the man who “put the HIP HIP HOP, HIPPITY HOP into the world’s heartbeat.”

Women Who Made History
In Flying Solo (Roaring Brook, 2013; Gr 2-5), author Julie Cummins and illustrator Malene R. Laugesen vivify a glamorous pioneering aviatrix who was determined to prove that a woman could pilot a plane as well as a man. Possessing “a sparkling personality, a smile as bright as a toothpaste ad, and plenty of pluck,” 23-year-old Ruth Elder (1902-1977) made an attempt at being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1927. Though mechanical failure caused a perilous ocean crash-landing and rescue, she “never lost her courage or her lipstick” and relished the subsequent fame (the feat was accomplished by her contemporary, Amelia Earhart). In 1929, Elder and 19 other women took part in a cross-country air race dubbed the Powder Puff Derby, navigating the zigzagging 2,759 mile route by roadmap and eyeball. The vivaciously written text and spirited full-bleed artwork capture the era—a time when “[m]ost people…believed that a woman belonged in the kitchen and not in a cockpit”—as well as Ruth’s daredevil spirit and winning demeanor. A final spread presents a portrait gallery of groundbreaking female flyers from Harriet Quimby (first American woman with a pilot’s license) to Eileen Collins (first female space shuttle commander), showing the exciting end point of the flight path first logged by Elder and her compatriots.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909 (HarperCollins/Balzar & Bray, 2013; K-Gr 5) offers an accessible look at another groundbreaking young woman. After relocating to New York City, Clara Lemlich (1886-1982) and her parents discovered that work was scarce, and the teenager, like thousands of other immigrant girls, took a low-paying job in a garment factory to support her family while pursuing her education at night. Forced to toil long hours under despicable conditions, Clara soon became a leader in the labor movement. Despite being jailed and beaten, her spirit was “shatterproof,” and she inspired her coworkers to fight for their rights, ultimately proving “that in America, wrongs can be righted, warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” Zeroing in on dramatic moments, the mixed-media illustrations utilize antique paper, fabrics, and stitched-together borers to depict the era and events. Facts about the garment industry and early 20th-century labor movement are seamlessly sewn into a narrative that describes Clara’s incredible courage and conveys a message about the importance of standing up for what is right.

Written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Carlyn Beccia, Louisa May’s Battle (Walker, 2013; Gr 2-5) shows how one woman’s strong belief that slavery was wrong propelled her to take part in the Civil War in the only way feasible for a female—as an army nurse. In 1862, Alcott (1832-1888) made the lengthy journey from her home in Concord, MA, to Washington, DC, where she took up duties in a drafty, overcrowded makeshift hospital, caretaking, feeding, and comforting a seemingly endless stream of wounded soldiers. Spare moments were spent writing home to her family, “letters full of snap and bite” that were later published as Hospital Sketches, her first successful book. The digital oil paintings convey time and place, and Krull clearly demonstrates how Alcott’s Civil War service molded her as a writer, helping the fledgling author hone her craft and discover the power of writing about her own experiences. Quotes from Alcott’s letters are incorporated into the narrative, adding a sense of immediacy and an alluring taste of her captivating literary style. Appended notes about women in medicine and the battle of Fredericksburg provide historical context. Connect this book to discussions of the Civil War, slavery and abolitionists, and women’s rights.

Fresh Looks at Famous Individuals
Jennifer Berne’s poetic, humor-warmed narrative and Vladimir Radunsky’s playful loose-lined artwork introduce Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and his insatiable desire to understand the hidden mysteries of the world. As an observant boy bedazzled by a compass with an always-north-pointing needle, a bicycle-peddling young man who envisions himself racing through space On a Beam of Light (Chronicle, 2013; Gr 2-6), and an adult musing about how the smoke from his pipe disappears into the air, this genial genius never stopped doing what he loved—“imagining, wondering, figuring and thinking.” Filled with well-selected details, the buoyant text and airy illustrations provide an accessible overview of Einstein’s life, sometimes eccentric behavior, and ground-shaking ideas, while also touching upon the sense of wonderment and careful contemplation that spurred him to “[ask] questions never asked before. [Find] answers never found before. And [dream] up ideas never dreamt before.” The book ends with a call to arms for future thinkers and additional notes about the scientist.

In Henri’s Scissors (S & S/Beach Lane, 2013; Gr 1-5), Jeanette Winter presents a succinct recap of Matisse’s (1869-1954) career then zooms in on his later years, when illness left him frail, wheelchair-bound, and wondering if he would “ever have the energy to paint again.” However, inspiration struck, and one day he “began to cut out shapes from painted paper—he was drawing with scissors,” a new means of self-expression that resulted in spectacular masterpieces and allowed him to find contentment. Rendered in acrylic paint and cut paper, Winter’s radiant illustrations pay homage to the artist’s work and spirit, and quotes from his letters are sprinkled throughout the warmhearted text. Students can search online to view Matisse’s late-in-life creations and make comparisons to his earlier work, mediums, and stylistic innovations. Compare this book to A Splash of Red and discuss how these two artists overcame challenges to answer their innate need to create.

Kadir Nelson’s stunning, large-size, paintings and succinct text introduce Nelson Mandela (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks., 2013; Gr 1-5), a handsome volume that is particularly timely as the world marks the recent passing of this celebrated South African activist/statesman (1918-2013). Striking spreads highlight significant moments in Mandela’s life—listening as a boy to stories of old Africa shared by tribal elders, speaking before a crowd at an anti-apartheid rally, joining hands and raising fists with his new wife Winnie, gazing from behind the bars of a jail cell, beaming after being set free after almost 23 years of imprisonment—snapshots that convey facts while underscoring his determination to “cleanse his homeland of hate and discrimination” and his ability to galvanize others to fight for freedom. Rich with luminous color and deftly depicted emotion, the dramatic artwork and lyrical narrative are both inspiring and informative.

In addition to introducing youngsters to noteworthy individuals, these picture book biographies, taken as a group, offer numerous opportunities for comparison and further study. Chose two or three of the titles and have students describe and discuss various types of narrative voice, illustrative styles and techniques, and the many ways in which information is conveyed. Youngsters can sample more traditional biographies in print or online, and then think about how these picture book biographies differ from straightforward biographical entries. All of these offerings rely upon illustrations rather than photographs. Why have the book creators made this choice? How do illustrations differ from photographs in terms of impact on the reader? Have students research a person of interest and create their own innovative biographies.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above suggested books and classroom activities:

RL. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RL 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
RL 5.6. Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
R.I. 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
RI 2.6. Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
RI 2.7. Explain how specific images…contribute to and clarify a text.
RI 4.7. Interpret information presented visually…and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
RI. 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
W. 1.2. Write information/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and prove some sense of closure.
W. 2.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects.
SL. 3.2 Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. Bernadette Mount says:

    I just did a project with 5th graders using picture book biographies. We read Barnum’s Bones by Tracey Fern, then came up with a list single words and short phrases to describe Barnum Brown based on the book. I showed them a word cloud I had made, also based on the book. In pairs, they got to choose a picture book biography from our collection and over the next several library periods they created their own word clouds using Wordle.net. The end results are now on display in the library along with the accompanying picture books which have seen an increased circulation.

  2. Love this list and your summaries. I’m really excited to read the Robert Frost “Papa is a Poet” book now. Totally had picture book biographies on the brain today too! (Evidence on my blog with 2 you mentioned.) Thanks for your article!