March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Pop Culture Meets History: 15 Biography Series To Hook Kids

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Students love to read about other people’s lives, whether historical figures with whom they feel a connection or a favorite athlete or contemporary pop star. Choosing the right biography is an effective way to establish and maintain engagement with a research project. It’s also an enjoyable way for young people to explore or deepen an interest and make a strong school connection. This year’s series offer a wide range of subjects to hook readers, including solid representation of some classic names as well as up-to-the-minute leaders in STEM fields and a share of Hollywood stars. While some of the texts are designed to meet the needs of reluctant or struggling readers, others are more narrative-rich and dense with detail. Librarians will have no trouble finding something here to appeal to every library and virtually every student.


Buckley, James, Jr. Katie Ledecky. ISBN 9781684022403.

––––. Kevin Durant. ISBN 9781684022427.

––––. Simone Biles. ISBN 9781684022410.

Markovics, Joyce. Michael Phelps. ISBN 9781684022397.

ea vol: 24p. (Amazing Americans: Olympians). chron. further reading. glossary. photos. Bearport. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $25.64.

Gr 1-3 –The layouts in each of these titles are colorful and image heavy, and the text blocks are short and simple, an appealing combination for younger or reluctant readers. Small gold medallions punctuate the text with bits of trivia—Katie Ledecky enjoys playing piano and traditional Irish dance, Simone Biles was adopted by her grandparents when she was six. Though some additional details find their way into the texts (Michael Phelps’s mother says he “never sat still” as a boy, Kevin Durant was already six feet tall in middle school), the narratives are typically short on biographical details and focus instead on athletic accomplishments. Throughout, the photos almost exclusively depict the athletes in competition. Each entry concludes with some sparse “read more” suggestions. VERDICT Engaging and highly visual, these may serve as simple introductions for early readers or an enticement to struggling students.

Caravantes, Peggy. Shawn Mendes: Pop Star. ISBN 9781503819979.

––––. Zendaya: Star Performer. ISBN 9781503820005.

Ford, Jeanne Marie. Adele: Music Sensation. ISBN 9781503819931.

––––. Rowan Blanchard: Teen Actress. ISBN 9781503819962.

Gabriel, Alisha. Silento: Breakout Rapper. ISBN 9781503819986.

Omoth, Tyler. Jennifer Lawrence: Movie Star. ISBN 9781503819948.

––––. Taylor Swift: Music Icon. ISBN 9781503819993.

Uhl, Xina M. Pharrell Williams: Music Industry Star. ISBN 9781503819955.

ea vol: 24p. (Superstar Stories). further reading. glossary. index. notes. photos. websites. The Child’s World. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $27.07.

Gr 3-6 –Each of these breezy introductions to a current celebrity opens with a “Fast Facts” section, including trivia, before moving on to chronological narrative. The texts include some intriguing and inspirational facts about their subjects. For example, Jennifer Lawrence was discovered by a talent scout during a family visit to New York City, and Shawn Mendes gained 100,000 followers after posting a short clip of a Justin Bieber cover on Vine. Text blocks are broken up with mostly glamour photos and brief but reflective quotations, though they are offered without context. Rowan Blanchard, for example, wants to play roles that are “layered and intricate and complicated.” Description can be vague at times, and lives are presented uncritically and with little perspective. The titles all close with very brief source notes and references to some print materials and a site with curated websites. VERDICT This focus on young success stories is appealing; however, as research materials these selections are adequate but relatively thin.

Faust, Dan. Ibtihaj Muhammad: Muslim American Champion Fencer and Olympian. ISBN 9781508160601; ISBN 9781508160588.

Hayes, Amy. Tim Cook: Industrial Engineer and CEO of Apple. ISBN 9781508160779; ISBN 9781508160748.

Keppeler, Jill. The Inventors of Minecraft: Markus “Notch” Persson and His Coding Team. ISBN 9781508160649; ISBN 9781508160625.

McAneney, Caitie. Simone Biles: Greatest Gymnast of All Time. ISBN 9781508160724; ISBN 9781508160700.

Machajewski, Sarah. Elon Musk: Engineer and Inventor for the Future. ISBN 9781508160564; ISBN 9781508160540.

Nagelhout, Ryan. Michael Phelps: Greatest Swimmer of All Time. ISBN 9781508160687; ISBN 9781508160663.

ea vol: 32p. (Breakout Biographies). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. PowerKids. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $26.25. pap. $10.

Gr 3-6 –A brief introductory chapter opens each volume, setting the context for the subject’s life and influence. Sidebar texts elucidate a range of complementary topics, such as Czech inventor Nikola Tesla in Musk, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in Phelps, and Islamophobia in Muhammad. The design is centered on very short text blocks, bright colors, and frequent visuals. Some of the choices of subject are amply covered in other recent biographies (Elon Musk; Michael Phelps), while others are intriguing and likely to draw interested readers (Ibtihaj Muhammad; the creators of Minecraft). The texts tend to unsupported hyperbole. Simone Biles is the “greatest gymnast of all time,” Phelps the greatest swimmer. Too many of the images are glamour photos staged in front of walls coated with advertising. There are no source notes, and the only suggestions for further reading are references to a curated page on the publisher’s website. VERDICT An additional selection for biography collections.

Strand, Jennifer. Chief Joseph. ISBN 9781532120220.

––––. Crazy Horse. ISBN 9781532120237.

––––. Pocahontas. ISBN 9781532120244.

––––. Sacagawea. ISBN 9781532120251.

––––. Sequoyah. ISBN 9781532120268.

––––. Sitting Bull. ISBN 9781532120275.

ea vol: 24p. (Native American Leaders). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. ABDO. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $21.07.

PreS-Gr 1 –In this series, the narratives are sparse and often imprecise. Sensitive subject matter is portrayed with a broad brush and generally seems to favor an Anglo perspective; for instance, in Crazy Horse: “Gold was found on Lakota land. The settlers wanted the gold.” In Sequoyah, Strand does admirably condense the story of Sequoyah’s invention of the Cherokee writing system as a tool for independence. The series’ main strength is in its vibrant images, composed of paintings, etchings, and individual photographs (where possible), as well as contemporary photos of historic reconstructions and statues and intriguing cameo portraits superimposed on landscape photos. Back matter includes brief “Quick Stats” and “Key Dates” sections. There are no sources cited. VERDICT An additional selection for libraries serving primary grades.

Strand, Jennifer. Eleanor Roosevelt. ISBN 9781532120190.

––––. Jacqueline Kennedy. ISBN 9781 532120169.

––––. Laura Bush. ISBN 9781532120152.

––––. Martha Washington. ISBN 9781532120206.

––––. Michelle Obama. ISBN 9781532120176.

––––. Nancy Reagan. ISBN 9781532120183.

ea vol: 24p. (First Ladies). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. ABDO. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $27.07.

PreS-Gr 1 –Although seemingly meant to be simple introductions to first ladies for very young readers, the texts here are not merely simple but frustratingly vague and uncertain. Readers learn of the Kennedys that “many people liked them” and that Laura Bush, in fact a second grade teacher and later school librarian, “worked in schools.” Sentences are typically vague as, for example, each of the women “became first lady” on a given date. All of the volumes are highly visual, often including striking photos, such as Jackie Kennedy visiting the Taj Mahal or Michelle Obama reacting to the crowd with husband Barack at his first inauguration. Each book concludes with a “Quick Stats” box and time line as well as glossary and simple index. No sources are cited, although a reference is provided to a difficult-to-navigate site that links to some related web resources. ­VERDICT Not recommended.

Middle to High School

Agrimbau, Diego. Anne Frank. illus. by Fabián Mezquita. ISBN 9781515791614; ISBN 9781515791652.

––––. Leonardo da Vinci. illus. by Diego Aballay. ISBN 9781515791638; ISBN 9781515791676.

Morini, Manuel. Nelson Mandela. illus. by Ignacio Segesso. ISBN 9781515791645; ISBN 9781515791683.

––––. Pope Francis. illus. by Ignacio Segesso. ISBN 9781515791621; ISBN 9781515791669.

ea vol: 80p. (Graphic Lives). chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Capstone. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $31.99. pap. $6.95.

Gr 7 Up –In this graphic novel series, the stories are mostly conveyed through speech bubbles and clearly demarcated text boxes. The visual style is rich and evocative. A scene of a war battle in Amsterdam includes inset close-up illustrations of participants and bystanders. Some text-only narrative includes biography and related topics (for example, “Italy in the Renaissance” or “South Africa and Apartheid”), as well as an overview of the subject’s portrayal in film. Complex stories are sometimes compressed. Mandela’s first marriage, divorce, and then remarriage occur within a few pages. Some of the detail in Francis will be incomprehensible to non-Catholics. Each text includes discussion questions and writing prompts. A limited number of books are also cited for additional reading, but no sources are listed. VERDICT Generally solid introductions to historical figures, particularly for more visual learners, though less useful for research.

Bailey, Budd. Ichiro Suzuki: A League of His Own. ISBN 9781502627605.

Bjorklund, Ruth. Richard Sherman: Shutting Down and Speaking Up. ISBN 9781502628312.

Boehme, Gerry. Serena Williams: Setting New Standards. ISBN 9781502627629.

Doyle, Brian. Cristiano Ronaldo: World-Beater. ISBN 9781502628343.

Shoup, Kate. Danica Patrick: Breaking Speed Barriers. ISBN 9781502628336.

Shuster, Rachel. LeBron James: King of the Court. ISBN 9781502628367.

Snow, Kevin. Ronda Rousey: Conquering New Ground. ISBN 9781502628329.

Stanmyre, Jackie Friedman. Cam Newton: Trying To Win Them All. ISBN 9781502628350.

ea vol: 112p. (At the Top of Their Game). bibliog. chron. further reading. glossary. index. photos. websites. Cavendish Square. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $42.79.

Gr 7 Up –The focus here is on athletes who have been totally devoted to their sports from a young age. Danica Patrick is kicked off her high school cheer team for missing too many practices while racing. Young Cristiano Ronaldo sneaks out of his parents’ house to play soccer. Important life lessons are not sugarcoated. Ronda Rousey, for example, is berated by her mother after accepting praise for finishing second in a judo tournament at age 11. A significant portion of the text is devoted to description of competition, potentially a challenge for the uninitiated. Photographs are plentiful, typically action shots of athletes. Some volumes outline their subjects’ charitable giving. Each volume includes a bibliography that emphasizes a wealth of online articles, most of them published within the last few years, as well as suggestions for further reading and a substantial index. VERDICT Excellent research materials on popular contemporary figures.

Bodden, Valerie. Marie Curie: Chemist and Physicist. ISBN 9781532110412.

Capek, Michael. Jane Goodall: Primatologist and Conservationist. ISBN 9781532110436.

Ploscariu, Iemima. Mae Carol Jemison: Astronaut and Educator. ISBN 9781532110450.

Streissguth, Tom. Rosalind Franklin: DNA Discoverer. ISBN 9781532110429.

Wheeler, Jill C. Grace Hopper: Computer Scientist. ISBN 9781532110443.

Yomtov, Nel. Chien-Shiung Wu: Nuclear Physicist. ISBN 9781532110467.

ea vol: 112p. (Women in Science). chron. diag. further reading. glossary. index. notes. photos. websites. ABDO. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $37.07.

Gr 7 Up –The texts all call particular attention to obstacles faced by professional women in the not so distant past. When kindergartner Mae Carol Jemison says she wants to be a scientist, the teacher asks, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking work in chimpanzee ethology is repeatedly dismissed by male colleagues. Much effort is given to explaining each woman’s contribution to her field and elucidating the often complex science involved, such as Grace Hopper’s multiple contributions to automating software development. Nearly every page includes some visual element, whether a diagram, photograph, or topical focus. Sidebars offer historical context, as, for example, an overview of school desegregation in Jemison’s biography or the 1930s Japanese occupation of much of China in Chien-Shiung Wu’s. Each volume concludes with detailed chapter notes as well as an annotated list of organizations to contact for information and suggested additional resources. VERDICT First-rate research materials and engaging and informative stories for tweens and young teens.

Cooper, Meghan. Sun Tzu. ISBN 9781502628671.

Duling, Kaitlyn. George Washington. ISBN 9781502627841.

Hoffman, Megan Mills. Napoleon Bonaparte. ISBN 9781502627827.

Newsome, Joel. Hannibal. ISBN 9781502628695.

Radomski, Kassi. Genghis Khan. ISBN 9781502627872.

Richardson, Erik. Alexander the Great. ISBN 9781502627858.

Schulz, Elizabeth. Montezuma II. ISBN 9781502627896.

Thiel, Kristin. Joan of Arc. ISBN 9781502627919.

ea vol: 128p. (Great Military Leaders). bibliog. further reading. glossary. index. maps. photos. reprods. websites. Cavendish Square. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $45.64.

Gr 8 Up –A biography series aimed at more mature and confident readers. Though illustrations are common and sidebar texts occur throughout, the primary narratives are laid out in long, largely unbroken blocks. Discussion sometimes considers sourcing, offering insight, for example, into the difficulty of finding primary source material on Aztec culture. The images that complement the narratives are contemporary photographs of extant ruins and art objects as well as reproductions of paintings and engravings, both contemporaneous and from later periods. Joan of Arc includes an image of her signature, a welcome personal touch. Maps are clearly annotated and well placed. Back matter contains suggestions for further reading, in addition to a comprehensive bibliography. Brief sidebar articles clarify related topics, providing a portrait of the Chinese historian Sima Qian or a summary of a recent monograph about Hannibal. VERDICT Highly recommended for world history studies, particularly in high schools.

Crompton, Samuel Willard. Thomas Paine: Fighting for American Independence. ISBN 9780766085152.

Cruz, Bárbara C. Simón Bolívar: Fighting for Latin American Liberation. ISBN 9780766089525.

Gay, Kathlyn. César Chávez: Fighting for Migrant Farmworkers. ISBN 9780766089518.

Lucas, Eileen. Mahatma Gandhi: Fighting For Indian Independence. ISBN 9780766085138.

Malaspina, Ann. Nelson Mandela: Fighting To Dismantle Apartheid. ISBN 9780766085176.

Worth, Richard. Toussaint L’Ouverture: Fighting for Haitian Independence. ISBN 9780766085213.

ea vol: 128p. (Rebels with a Cause). further reading. index. maps. notes. photos. websites. Enslow. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $32.27.

Gr 7 Up –Marketing this broad spectrum of historical activists as “rebels” will be a draw for many students. Supplemental text blocks illuminate related topics, for example, an outline of Thomas Paine’s slothful and immoderate habits or of the various classes of society in Simón Bolívar’s colonial Venezuela. Authors do not shy from honest treatment of historical facts, as in, for instance, the overview of the Black Codes that allowed for brutal treatment of enslaved Africans in colonial Hispaniola in L’Ouverture. A wide range of images, such as maps, paintings, and photographs of contemporary monuments and locations, provide visual context to the narratives, though they are too often incompletely cited in the text. Numbered source notes, divided by chapter, appear at the end of each volume, along with recommendations for further study, including websites and films, and a substantial index. VERDICT Despite some minor flaws, a solid choice for middle and high schools.

Cunningham, Meghan Engsberg. Agatha Christie: Traveler, Archaeologist, and Author. ISBN 9781502627551.

Gaines, Alison. Mary Edwards Walker: The Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient. ISBN 9781502627452.

Griffiths, Katie. Sacagawea: Shoshone Guide, Interpreter, and Leading Member of the Corps of Discovery. ISBN 9781502627476.

Small, Cathleen. Bessie Coleman: First Female African American and Native American Pilot. ISBN 9781502627537.

Thiel, Kristin. Amelia Earhart: First Woman To Fly Solo Across the Atlantic. ISBN 9781502627490.

––––. Mae C. Jemison: First African American Woman in Space. ISBN 9781502627513.

ea vol: 128p. (Fearless Female Soldiers, Explorers, and Aviators). bibliog. further reading. photos. websites. Cavendish Square. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $45.64.

Gr 9 Up –Long opening chapters provide comprehensive introductions, laying out important facts and sounding themes that will develop later in each text. Narratives are suited to stronger readers, including some challenging vocabulary (typically defined in the glossary) and lengthy digressions setting historical context. Bessie Coleman’s childhood, for example, is examined in light of racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S. South, Mary Edwards Walker’s alongside the religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening. Sidebar texts break up longer accounts somewhat and provide supplemental information. Photographs are plentiful and sometimes striking, such as one of a young Agatha Christie with her mother in the 1890s. VERDICT Well-researched and clearly written historical biographies, recommended for libraries serving high schoolers.

Felix, Rebecca. Chuck Taylor: Sneaker Sensation. ISBN 9781532110788.

––––. Eddie Bauer: Down Jacket Developer. ISBN 9781532110733.

––––. Louis Réard: Bikini Designer. ISBN 9781532110764.

––––. Mary Quant: Miniskirt Maker. ISBN 9781532110757.

––––. Sam Foster: Sunglasses Success. ISBN 9781532110740.

Olson, Elsie. Levi Strauss: Blue Jean Genius. ISBN 9781532110771.

ea vol: 32p. (First in Fashion). chron. glossary. index. photos. websites. ABDO. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $27.07.

Gr 5-8 –Each of the subjects profiled is a pioneer in mainstreaming an element of fashion now common but once unusual or even controversial. Each brief book is packed with often fascinating information. For example, miniskirt popularizer Mary Quant studied art education and began her career as an apprentice hat maker. Eddie Bauer got the idea for a down jacket from an uncle who had served in the Russian army. The design is colorful and eye-catching, including many illustrative photographs, both historical and stock. Brief “Fashion Factoid” sidebars offer inessential but informative facts, such as that Converse All Stars were available only in black or white until the 1960s. A “Fashion Time Machine” feature situates each clothing article in a historical context. No sources are listed, though a reference is provided to the publisher’s website for curated links. ­VERDICT Despite the slim back matter, these are highly engaging and rich resources.

Gottfried Hollander, Barbara. Elizabeth I: Queen of England. ISBN 9781680486438; ISBN 9781680486414.

Krasner, Barbara. Harriet Tubman: ­Abolitionist and Conductor of the Underground ­Railroad. ISBN 9781680486599; ISBN 9781680486575.

Loria, Laura. La Malinche: Indigenous Translator for Hernán Cortés in Mexico. ISBN 9781680486513; ISBN 9781680486490.

Nagle, Jeanne. Pocahontas: Facilitating Exchange Between the Powhatan and the Jamestown Settlers. ISBN 9781680486551; ISBN 9781680486537.

Uhl, Xina M. Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt. ISBN 9781680486391; ISBN 9781680486377.

Wolny, Philip. Joan of Arc: French Soldier and Saint. ISBN 9781680486476; ISBN 9781680486452.

ea vol: 48p. (Women Who Changed History). further reading. glossary. index. maps. photos. websites. Britannica. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $26.85. pap. $14.05.

Gr 4-7 –The writing in the series is clear and vivid, the historical and thematic range of subjects broad and inclusive. However, while the inclusion of La Malinche affords a welcome look at a subject not often given her own treatment, owing to the scant historical record, much of the narrative is couched as “would have” or “must have,” based on knowledge of the period. Visuals are excellent throughout the series, making use of a wide range of available images. Many photos of Harriet Tubman depict her during the latter part of her long life. While images are credited in the front of each volume, captions do not always provide adequate context. Sidebar texts are brief but rich, such as a colorful map and overview history of the city of Alexandria in Cleopatra or a review of the Fugitive Slave Acts in Tubman. VERDICT A good choice for general nonfiction reading, though less solid for research.

Harrison, Kat. Lin-Manuel Miranda: Composer, Actor, and Creator of Hamilton. ISBN 9780766085053.

Kauffman, Susan. Kevin Hart: Comedian, Actor, Writer, and Producer. ISBN 9780766085077.

Redgrave, Naida. Shonda Rhimes: TV Producer, Screenwriter, and Showrunner. ISBN 9780766085039.

Staley, Erin. Misty Copeland: Principal Ballerina. ISBN 9780766085091.

ea vol: 128p. (Influential Lives). chron. further reading. glossary. index. notes. photos. websites. Enslow. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $37.27.

Gr 7 Up –All the subjects in this series are well chosen for contemporary student interest, Lin-Manuel Miranda in particular. The texts are substantial and well rounded, celebrating their subjects’ many accomplishments but not shying from difficult challenges, such as an abusive stepfather in Copeland. Language is sometimes overly colloquial. Aaron Burr is a “frenemy” of Alexander Hamilton in Miranda; Copeland refers to traditional ballerinas’ “super thin physiques.” Photographs are ample throughout but tend too frequently to be staged celebrity shots offering little insight. Short, complementary texts provide helpful background information on topics such as Dartmouth University, Shonda Rhimes’s alma mater, Miranda’s political influences, or comedians such as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, who inspired Kevin Hart. Chapter notes are plentiful and individually numbered. VERDICT Engagingly written and well researched, recommended for biographical research or general nonfiction reading.

Kallen, Stuart A. A Journey with Christopher Columbus. ISBN 9781512407723.

––––. A Journey with Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. ISBN 9781512407730.

Owens, Lisa L. A Journey with Hernán Cortés. ISBN 9781512407778.

––––. A Journey with Sieur de La Salle. ISBN 9781512407754.

Waxman, Laura Hamilton. A Journey with Henry Hudson. ISBN 9781512407747.

––––. A Journey with Juan Ponce de León. ISBN 9781512407761.

ea vol: 40p. (Primary Source Explorers). bibliog. chron. further reading. glossary. index. maps. photos. reprods. websites. Lerner. Aug. 2017. lib. ed. $30.65.

Gr 4-7 –Each volume opens with an introductory chapter citing a primary document, such as a letter to King Charles V about Hernán Cortés’s expedition to Mexico, and offering a short definition of primary sourcing and discussion of its significance. The design throughout the series is colorful and images are frequent, including contemporaneous engravings, paintings, and maps. Reflection questions appear at the foot of many pages, asking readers, for example, what Christopher Columbus might have said to kings to try to convince them to fund his voyages. The writing is simple and direct, though rich with detail. Potentially problematic topics, such as the treatment of Indigenous people by invaders, are handled sensitively and honestly. Numerous complementary sidebars treat subjects such as Sieur de La Salle learning local languages from First Nations people. VERDICT These are first-rate research materials presented with much care for reluctant readers.

Where some of the series will appeal to younger readers or those striving to find a connection, still others go deep with their subjects. Each series offers its own perspective. Lerner’s “Primary Source Explorers” engages student researchers with the meaning and significance of primary sources, outlining some of the information to be gleaned from Renaissance-era letters and diaries. Enslow’s “Influential Lives” series takes a more contemporary approach, offering richly detailed biographies of popular culture standouts such as Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda or massively successful TV producer Shonda Rhimes. Capstone reaches out to visual learners with its “Graphic Lives” set. A few series bring attention to historical figures not often highlighted individually, such as La Malinche in Britannica’s “Women Who Changed History” or physicist Chien-Shiung Wu in ABDO’s “Women in Science.” The same publisher’s “First in Fashion” is a fascinating look into the origins and popularity of everyday fashion items.

Bob Hassett, Luther Jackson Middle School, Falls Church, VA

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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