My favorite reading challenge in 2014 is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit her blog to find out more.
Renee Watson’s Harlem’s Little Blackbird is a biography of Florence Mills, a famous Harlem Renaissance singer. Watson narrates Mills’s childhood, her early recognition as a talented singer, the prejudice and racism she experienced, and the incredible success she experienced as a performer. Christian Robinson’s mixed-media illustrations are superb: if you’re interested in picture book art, you need to see this book.
I have been slowly working my way through Demi’s books (there are more than 300 of them!) and was pleased to find her biography of Mother Teresa at my library. Of course a big part of the appeal here is Demi’s characteristically ornate illustrations, done in paint, ink, and gold. The text is often quite dense and clearly meant for an older audience: Demi focuses more on presenting factual information chronologically than shaping a narrative or focusing on particular episodes in Mother Teresa’s life. The straightforward biographical narrative is punctuated by prayers, quotations from the Bible, and quotations from Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa herself is a fascinating figure–an absolutely tireless and unflagging leader and visionary.
Jonah Winter’s excellent free verse biography of Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates charts the rise of Clemente from the backyards and baseball fields of Puerto Rico, where he grew up poor, to his professional career in the Major Leagues, where he took his team to the World Series twice. I knew nothing about Clemente and found his story incredibly inspiring–especially his humanitarian work. The ending came as quite a shock to me and my son: Clemente is killed in a plane crash as he was trying to fly supplies to earthquake victims in Central America. Beautifully illustrated by Raul Colon.
Catherine Clinton’s Phillis’s Big Test takes its title from a key episode in early American poet Phillis Wheatley’s life and career: her appearance before a panel of “learned men” who questioned whether Wheatley, a slave, could indeed have written the volume of poems she intended to publish. But Clinton focuses more on telling the story of how Wheatley became a poet in the first place. An excellent introduction to Phillis Wheatley’s life for younger readers. I have to single out Sean Qualls’s artwork for praise too. I especially appreciated the bright, colorful palette he chooses for this story.
I loved Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger’s free verse picture book biography of Bessie Coleman, Fly High!, illustrated by Teresa Flavin. This is the incredibly inspiring story of one woman’s quest to “be somebody,” to make something of herself and her life. Coleman, who became the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license, was born in a one-room cabin in Texas. She loved learning and loved school but sometimes had to work to support her family rather than attend school. She managed just one semester at college before she had to leave because she didn’t have enough money to pay for her classes. She followed her brother to Chicago where she got a job as a manicurist. Her desire to fly was born when she overheard some customers talking about female pilots in France during World War I. Coleman began studying French and saving her money to travel to France to get her pilot’s license (no American school would let her take lessons). In France, she walked nine miles to and from the flying school each day. After she received her license, she returned to America, performed in air shows, and traveled the country, lecturing and visiting schools to encourage children to pursue their dreams. Her goal was eventually to open her own flying school, but sadly she was killed in 1926 in a plane crash.
Kathleen Krull has precious little information to go on for her biography of Pocahontas, Princess of the New World, but she is still able to craft a reasonably compelling story out of what little we do know of Pocahontas’s life. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this title. Krull wants to give Pocahontas her own voice and make her a memorable character in her own right, but all of the source material for information on Pocahontas comes from English sources and most of that material focuses only on her role as “peacekeeper” between men and nations. Krull tries to emphasize Pocahontas’s high spirits and love of movement in an effort to make her well-rounded and three-dimensional, but I’m not sure where the evidence for that interpretation comes from. How do we know, for example, that Pocahontas danced in the moonlight after a hard day of work? David Diaz’s illustrations are incredibly vibrant and colorful but also tend to romanticize Native Americans and erase tribal specificity.