Gearing up for #NCTE16! I hope to see many of you there!
Melissa Sweet’s biography of E.B. White was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. It was also full of surprises–which isn’t easy for biography, which tends to be a fairly straightforward genre. The first surprise was its length (176 pages)–not the picture book I was expecting. The chapter book format allowed Sweet to explore White’s life and work in such depth. The second surprise was the art: it suffuses every page and functions as much more than support for the story. As with Sweet’s other picture books, the art is necessary to tell much of the story, especially the story of White as an introvert who loved being outdoors. The third surprise was how many of White’s own words are incorporated into the text. I tend to skip over or at least skim big quotes in biographies, but Sweet’s way of incorporating quotes from White’s work (photos of manuscripts and passages typed on a manual typewriter on vintage-look paper) placed White’s words front and center and gave them great energy and significance. And the passages were so well-chosen: I closed this biography eager to return to White’s books, to reread Charlotte’s Web and the essays, to read the letters. A final surprise was just how compelling and even exciting Sweet managed to make what was, by White’s own choice, a quiet, solitary life. I don’t think that White is, on paper, the best subject for a children’s biography, but Sweet made something special of this story. Reading this book, readers can’t help but fall in love with White–and that, for me, is what sets apart great biographies from merely good ones. A biographical and artistic tour de force and definitely on my top 10 for the year.
I’ll be honest: I was really skeptical about this one. A story told from the perspective of the school building? That just didn’t sound very interesting to me. But I shouldn’t have doubted Adam Rex: he does something special with this one and manages to make both the school itself and the different people learning inside of it come to life. This charming book is destined to become a favorite first-day read-aloud. It didn’t hurt that it was illustrated by one of my favorite artists either!
I loved Danna Smith’s writing in Arctic White, and the overall storyline–about a girl who is tired of the endless white of an Arctic winter and feels artistically inspired after her grandfather takes her to see the Northern lights–is lovely and inspiring, but this is not a book I would ever recommend or share because of its portrayal of indigenous peoples. The text is nonspecific, so much of the problem comes through the choices made in the illustrations to highlight romanticized and stereotypical elements of Arctic indigenous peoples’ lives, including having this family live in an igloo! At this point, there’s really no excuse for writers, illustrators, and publishers to keep putting out books that present Native peoples and cultures stereotypically and generically.
My son continues to choose Amazing Athletes biographies for his daily reading practice, and I continue to struggle with how blandly written these books are. They are largely a list of accomplishments with too much emphasis on details that don’t matter and no storyline. I understand their appeal to kids: they include lots of good photos and the amount of text per page seems manageable for less confident independent readers. But young readers (and the moms who are listening to them read aloud!) deserve better.