May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Biographies to Blow Your Mind | JLG Booktalks to Go

While some kids lean toward fiction, others find nonfiction far more satisfying; however, these stunning new picture book biographies will please a variety of readers. Ben Franklin suffered from gout and kidney stones, yet at age 70, he was sent by the government to Paris to petition the king for war aid. Another man wrote in lower case letters, yet his poetry continues to be taught in all universities. A young blind musician grew up to win seven Grammy Awards. In Ghana, a disabled boy learned to ride a bicycle with his one strong leg, later pedaling 400 miles across his country. A New Orleans boy taught himself to play an instrument twice his size. And one man conned the infamous Al Capone and later sold the Eiffel Tower to three companies for scrap metal. Stories about real people like the following selected by the editors at Junior Library Guild will not only capture reader’s attention, but inspire them to dare greatly.

Trombone Shorty book coverANDREWS, Troy and Bill Taylor. Trombone Shorty. illus. by Bryan Collier. 40p. Abrams. 2015. ISBN 9781419714658. JLG Level: CE : City Elementary (Grades 2–6). LiveBinder Resources

Music was everywhere in Troy Andrews’s New Orleans hometown, and all he wanted to do was play. One day he found a beat up trombone, which he took home to practice on. When a parade passed his house, Andrews, later nicknamed Trombone Shorty, joined in. When his mom took him to a concert, his trombone went, too. Before Andrews knew it, Bo Diddley called him to the stage to play. Now, he plays with his own band and leads the parade that gave him his start.

Read more about Andrews’s career in the author’s note. Find out more about the Trombone Shorty Foundation and Music Academy program, which he launched to support underserved musicians. Andrews is still on tour, and you can see his schedule on his website and follow him on Twitter. Check out reviews and other information on the picture book at Abrams. Share the illustrator video interview from Reading Rockets, which includes Collier’s biography. Be sure to read School Library Journal’s interview with Collier, “The Power of Pictures.” Kids will want to hear Trombone Shorty’s music after reading the story, so direct them to “Where Y’At,” where users can find the video in the JLG Spring 2015 LiveBinder.

Enormous SmallnessBURGESS, Matthew. Enormous Smallness: The Story of E. E. Cummings. illus. by Kris Di Giacomo. 64p. Enchanted Lion. 2015. ISBN 9781592701711. JLG Category: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2–6). LiveBinder Resources

At age three, Edward Estlin Cummings wrote his first poem, but it wasn’t his last. His mom wrote them all down in a little book until he could do it himself. Cummings’s imagination and powers of observation kept him busy, yet he always found time to write and draw. His teacher encouraged him, and his professors inspired him. Cummings was ready to make his mark.

Like his subject, Burgess is also a poet, teaching creative writing and composition at Brooklyn College and leading poetry workshops in NYC elementary schools. Di Giacomo is an American who has lived in France since her childhood. Though her website is in French, kids may enjoy looking at her work, even if they don’t read the language. Students who want to know more about Cummings will find him at and Poetry Foundation.

Talkin GuitarGOURLEY, Robbin. Talkin’ Guitar: A Story of Young Doc Watson. illus. by author. 40p. Clarion. 2015. ISBN 9780544129887. JLG Category: NEK : Nonfiction Early Elementary (Grades K–2). LiveBinder Resources

A young boy listened to the musical sounds he heard in the mountains of North Carolina. “Arthel had a heart full of melody and a head full of song.” He was also blind. But music poured out of him, and he practiced on anything that made a sound. His father challenged him to teach himself to play his cousin’s guitar. He learned in one day. Listening to songs on the radio, he decided if he could work on the farm despite his disability, he could write his own music, too. The young blind boy grew up to be Doc Watson, winner of seven Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Gourley grew up in North Carolina, appreciating the music of Appalachia. Read the Q & A with Robbin Courley at HMH’s Tumblr. Learn more about the talented musician at Doc’s Guitar. Listen to excerpts or purchase CDs at Smithsonian Folkways. A YouTube search also produces many video recordings.

Potato KingNIEMANN, Christoph. The Potato King. illus. by author. 32p. Owlkids. 2015. ISBN 9781771471398. JLG Category: K : Kindergarten (Grades PreK-K). LiveBinder Resources

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was also a strong supporter of an ordinary vegetable. His people were hungry, yet they were afraid to try a new food from South America—the potato. Frederick ordered a decree that the villages plant the new vine, but they refused. “It doesn’t have a smell or a taste, what use is it to us?” they cried. So King Fritz planted his own garden. He had an idea, but it would take a bit of trickery.

Kids will enjoy the charm of Niemann’s story, charmingly illustrated with potato prints. Follow him on Twitter. Did Frederick the Great actually trick the peasants into eating the tuber? A visit to his grave indicates evidence of substantiating proof or at least belief in the legend.

Tricky VicPIZZOLI, Greg. Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower. illus. by author. 48p. Viking. 2015. ISBN 9780670016525. JLG Category: I+ : Independent Readers (Grades 2-4). LiveBinder Resources

“In 1890, the man who would one day be known by forty-five different aliases was born to the Miller family, in what is now the Czech Republic. His parents named him Robert.” Not only was he smart, but he could also speak several languages. He was a skillful poker player. He initially earned his living as a gambler but left town after a knife fight left him scarred. Transforming into Count Victor Lustig, he worked scams on transatlantic cruise liners. Tricky Vic would leave a path of scammed victims in his wake, from Al Capone to several people to whom he promised to sell the Eiffel Tower.

In a post on “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” author/illustrator Pizzoli discusses the making of Tricky Vic which started as a zine. Completed in about three weeks, Pizzoli hand-sewed a dozen copies and sent them off to publishers. His agent took one to Viking, and the rest is publishing history. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter. The cleverness of the nonfiction picture book is unparalleled. (After reading a post on Design of the Picture Book, I was inspired to look carefully and the en papers of this work, which feature a list of the Ten Commandments for Con Artists hidden under the back flap.) Links to selected sources listed in the back matter appear in the JLG LiveBinder.

MesmerizedROCKLIFF, Mara. Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France. illus. by Iacopo Bruno. 48p. Candlewick. 2015. ISBN 9780763663513. JLG Category: SCE : Science Nonfiction Elementary (Grades 2–6). LiveBinder Resources

He may have been a senior citizen, but Ben Franklin was hardly retired in 1776 when he was sent to Paris to negotiate aid for the American cause. He arrived just in time to put his scientific fame to good use. Dr. Mesmer seemed to be curing ailments without medicine. Though Mesmer simply waved a wand and stared into people’s eyes, patients announced they were symptom-free. The king of France sent Franklin to investigate. Using the scientific method, the American scientist made a discovery and solved the mystery.

Read the interview with the book’s creators on Shelf Awareness. Check out Rockliff’s author page and follow her on Twitter. Follow Bruno’s blog where you’ll see dozens of his cover illustrations. Read more about Mesmer on PBS. Pair the title with the Wonderopolis lesson “Can You Be Hypnotized?”

Book cover Emmanuels DreamTHOMPSON, Laurie Ann. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. illus. by Sean Qualls. 40p. Schwartz & Wade. 2015. ISBN  9780449817452. JLG Category: BE : Biography Elementary (Grades 2–6). LiveBinder Resources

Emmanuel’s mother told him to never give up. He decided the best way to honor those last words was to show everyone that being disabled does not mean unable. So although he had only one good leg, he decided to cycle across Africa. All he needed was a bike.

Emmanuel continues to prove that his disability is merely a challenge, not an impediment. Read about the organization that provided his first cycle at Learn more about the author on her website and follow her on Twitter. The award-winning illustrator can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

Additional Resources

The resources for the above titles have been organized in JLG Booktalks to Go: Spring 2015 LiveBinder. Titles are sorted by interest level, PreK-3, 3-6, 5-8, and YA. All websites are posted within each LiveBinder, along with the accompanying booktalk. New booktalks and resources are added every month. Everything you need to teach or share brand new, hot-off-the-press books is now all in one place. Booktalks and resources are also included on JLG’s BTG Pinterest board.

For library resources, tips, and ideas, please visit JLG’s Shelf Life Blog.

Junior Library Guild (JLG) is a collection development service that helps school and public libraries acquire the best new children’s and young adult books. Season after season, year after year, Junior Library Guild book selections go on to win awards, collect starred or favorable reviews, and earn industry honors. Visit us at (NOTE: JLG is owned by Media Source, Inc., SLJ’s parent company.)

Deborah B. Ford About Deborah B. Ford

Deborah is the Director of Library Outreach for Junior Library Guild. She is an award-winning teacher librarian with almost 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools.