By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Benny Andrews loved to draw. He drew his nine brothers and sisters, and his parents. He drew the red earth of the fields where they all worked, the hot sun that beat down, and the rows and rows of crops. As Benny hauled buckets of water, he made pictures in his head. And he dreamed of a better life—something beyond the segregation, the backbreaking labor, and the limited opportunities of his world. Benny’s dreams took him far from the rural Georgia of his childhood. He became one of the most important African American painters of the twentieth century, and he opened doors for other artists of color. His story will inspire budding young artists to work hard and follow their dreams.
This is exactly what a picture book biography should be for younger audiences. It uses the artist’s art as more than just a bit of decoration and the text is short, to the point, and very understandable.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that it uses Andrews actual art to illustrate it. Obviously you can’t do that with every picture book biography, but in this case Andrews drew the world he saw around him and in a way that is accessible to children. It makes the book feel very much like an intimate glimpse into his life.
To me one of the really appealing aspects of his art is the lighting he uses. It looks very bright, almost harsh. This has the effect of making the colors pop, which I think children will find very appealing. I’ve said this at other times and I understand that great art is not actually easy to create, however there is a child-like look to Andrews art and I think kids like to see art that they think they could recreate or that looks like their art. His pictures also have an element of collage to them and that makes them feel a little more three dimensional instead of flat paintings.
The text itself isn’t long. There is a short paragraph on each two-page spread with a piece of Andrew’s art. This does mean that you don’t get an exhaustive look at Andrew’s life, but for younger readers (second and third grade) it’s perfect. Not enough text to turn them off and not too little to feel too young. You get enough information that you have a sense of who Andrews was and what he accomplished and, if you find him interesting enough, a desire to learn more. Sometimes I think picture book biographies try to present too much information for the format and it ends up feeling taxing to read. Almost a bait and switch- you think you’re getting a shorter picture book and you end up slogging through something much longer and more involved. It’s a turn off for kids. Draw What You See balances text and pictures very well and then includes a note at the end, a timeline, and some resources. Kids can decide if they want to seek out more at the end.
I think this would be a great book for any library with a biography collection. It’s completely appropriate for younger and older audiences, too. It should draw in those kids just coming to picture book biographies, but it could very easily pique older reader’s interest in the artist. Again, another that is on my first list of purchases for next year. We need more diversity in that collection and here is a book that is both interesting and high quality.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers About a Familiar Fowl written and illustrated by Robin Page
From Goodreads: Celebrated author-illustrator Robin Page leads a step-by-step, question-and-answer-style journey through the world of chickens. Along the way you’ll explore different breeds, discover different types of coops, and learn everything there is to know about chicken reproduction and hatching.
I had to pick this book up. For starters it’s about chickens, but also, that chicken on the cover could be our Rhode Island Red. I love chickens!
I seem to remember reading a review of this book that talked about the text being fairly difficult. At least for picture book nonfiction. It’s certainly not easy. Done in question and answer style, each page has a fair amount of text on it, but it’s all very clearly written. I read it to my four-year-old daughter and she had no trouble comprehending it.
The information itself is true (see my rant about that here) and interesting. And it answers some basic questions about how egg production works. I cannot tell you how many people do not understand egg production and chickens. The most common question we get is if a rooster is needed to get hens to lay eggs. No. If there was a rooster there would be babies, folks. Basic biology there. Let’s be sure our children know where eggs come from and how that whole process works.
An excellent book for schools that have units on birds and/or farm animals. It would also make a nice addition to public library collections as most children love farm animals and are curious about them (I borrowed the copy from my public library).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Feb 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I know there are a lot of problematic nonfiction titles out there for children in terms of race, religion, culture, etc. Unfortunately we have quite a few of them in our library collection right now. But as I am working more closely with kids in the library on research projects I am discovering that there are some deep issues with children’s nonfiction across the board. It’s not just those problematic titles that need to be reconsidered and weeded.
I guess I started noticing this a few years ago, but it’s become most apparent in the last two weeks to me with the research project I’m working on with my second graders. The vast majority…no, all of the nonfiction we have on the Underground Railroad contains incorrect information. And not just one or two insignificant facts. Big glaring untruths. I’ve noticed it in history texts about Ancient Egypt too because that’s what I studied in college and this seriously makes me wonder if it’s endemic to children’s nonfiction. (I bring this up a bit here in my review of a book about Hatshepsut.)
I’m not just finding these half truths and fairy tales (as a good friend of mine called it) in books printed for children. It’s in the database our library subscribes to. YIKES! Through another friend I know that unless you are reading peer-reviewed journal articles from a database the articles are written by copy writers, so the articles are only as good as their research. The friend I heard this from actually writes for one of the large database companies (or has in the past) and she would turn the articles out in an afternoon. That included the research and the writing. I’m not trying to be critical of her (I actually trust her), just the companies that don’t require more work and research behind the articles they put out and don’t do some due diligence and fact check them. Or better yet, pay people who are experts in the field of the article to write them.
These inaccuracies cause several problems for me. The first and most pressing is that I’m at a loss of what to use for good resources for my students. These guys are second graders so their reading skills are just coming together and they need simplified resources. That’s why we had relied on a lot of those nonfiction books and articles to begin with. I’m finding ways to get them the information they need, but it’s a lot of work on my part and isn’t ideal. Most of the resources need to be read aloud to them so they can understand the information. I will say, though, telling them about this problem and the process I’m going through is an excellent lesson for them to instill skepticism and impress on them how important thorough research is.
I’m also finding that not only do children’s nonfiction titles frequently not cite sources (another excellent lesson for my students), even when they do they aren’t always good sources. In fact a lot of these inaccuracies are perpetuated by a few sources that everyone seems to consult. Which leads to the second problem, I really just want to weed our entire nonfiction collection. Just throw every book out and start over. I already am weeding to some extent, but I think it needs to be gone over with a fine tooth comb now.
Once I’ve purged all the incorrect things though, I don’t have many, if any, places to turn to find good books to put back on the shelves, which is the third problem this raises. With all these books either not citing sources or relying on the same outdated or incorrect information sources (and in my bleak state of mind) I don’t know where to turn next to build a solid collection. I can’t fact check every book and I would need to be buying them and reading each and every one before putting it into our collection- a task that is both too time consuming and a huge hassle, but something I will probably have to do for the time being.
I do think one solution is to have a small, but incredibly well curated nonfiction collection. I would rather they had only a few places to turn than a lot of bad ones. Is anyone else noticing this or grappling with it? Thoughts, ideas, solutions? Please be careful about what you are putting on your shelves!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
From Goodreads: Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple”, A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports; C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy; D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers; and E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.
And the list of great women continues, spanning several centuries, multiple professions, and 26 diverse individuals. There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds.
This is technically probably not a chapter book and it certainly has a high reading level, but the format is so close to a chapter book and it’s so perfect for those kids who are reading chapter books.
The mix of women and movements they started or supported is incredible. Kids will be exposed to all sorts of activism, from political to social to historical, and may even find a cause they can be passionate about. The book is both a great history lesson and a great lesson in fights for equality and justice that are still going on. Some of the women may be familiar to kids from curriculum, media or other picture books, but many won’t be and that’s fantastic.
The book does require a bit of outside knowledge. There is mention of types of music, historical movements, and ideas that the book doesn’t focus on defining. This isn’t a failing per se, but it will require that the reader have some exposure to these ideas or that you open up conversations with them about them. I hope it does open up those conversations in homes and in classrooms because we need to be having them and kids need to be aware of them.
I really hate to be critical of artwork because I have no talent as an artist, but some of the portraits in the book aren’t as good as others. I love the style- cut paper on a bold, single-colored background and the majority of them are great portraits of the people. And I am over the moon that it is not some pink and girly book despite it being all women. It’s just that a few of the portraits have little odd elements (odd hands or wrinkles) that make them seem off and I think that’s due in part to the style. It’s hard to capture detail with the broad swaths of cut paper. Will that bother kids reading this? I’m not sure. Many kids latch onto things like that and may be more likely to in a book that touches on some uncomfortable topics in an effort to channel their awkwardness. It’s such a minor complaint though in a book that is rad.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: People have been gobbling up yummy, nutritious raisins for centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans awarded them at sporting events and astronauts have taken raisins into space. Find out how grapes become raisins, who introduced the seedless grape, and the many uses for raisins.
Oddly enough we picked up a copy of this book four years ago at the SunMaid Raisin factory. At the time I had no idea who had written it (I just didn’t pay any attention), but we liked the information and how it was presented.
The book is clearly informational, but Ryan writes little rhyming questions and then answers them. This makes for a more engaging nonfiction book. My own daughter has been willing to read the book for a couple years now despite it being rather long. Everything is very interesting. I had no idea how prevalent raisins are or how naturally they are made. After three weeks of drying in the sun, it only takes 10 minutes to get them into the factory and then into a box. This is a good book for all those people who want kids to know where their food comes from.
I will say, I’m not personally overly fond of the illustrations. Some of them are great, but others feel like they fall a little flat. Some pages don’t have a full illustration, but one or two smaller pictures to illustrate one or two questions and answers. The white space around those doesn’t feel intentional. It feels almost lazy. There is also some funny formatting with where the questions and answer paragraphs are placed on the page that can make it a little difficult to follow the text properly. And I really don’t like the font they used for the title and questions, but that’s totally a personal preference.
The book is probably best suited to classrooms and library collections, unless your family is really into food and how it’s made (or if you love the SunMaid factory like we do!). There’s a lot of science and history here so it’s a book you could use in a number of different units of study, such as food science, nutrition, and farm-to-fork.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: They went by many names, but the world came to know them best as the Harlem Hellfighters. Two thousand strong, these black Americans from New York picked up brass instruments—under the leadership of famed bandleader and lieutenant James Reese Europe—to take the musical sound of Harlem into the heart of war. From the creators of the 2012Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor Book, And the Soldiers Sang, this remarkable narrative nonfiction rendering of WWI — and American — history uses free-verse poetry and captivating art to tell century-old story of hellish combat, racist times, rare courage, and inspired music.
Told with incredible illustrations and spare chunks of text, Harlem Hellfighters is not just a story of WWI, but a story of race relations during that era. The small pieces of the story help pack an emotional punch but also shield young readers from the true horrors of WWI.
The 369th, an all black unit, was assembled and sent to France. The men hoped they would be fighting on the front lines, but that evaded them for a long time because of their race. Instead they found themselves doing grunt work far behind the fighting. Under the direction of James Reese Europe, ninety of the men played a fusion jazz that inspired and excited many soldiers and civilians.
Eventually they were sent to the front where they fought admirably and tenaciously. They earned the German nickname Harlem Hellfighters. Many of the men were killed and wounded, but many earned medals of honor, including Henry Johnson who earned a Croix de Guerre, the first American to do so.
The color palette of the illustrations is wonderful. Dark grays, black, blues, browns and purples give them a cold and gritty atmosphere. The text is lyrical and poetic which also contributes to the atmosphere of the book.
This is definitely a worthwhile picture book. A picture book that shows they aren’t just for preschoolers. The language is complex, beautiful and evocative. Although it’s not packed with facts, it will definitely spark interest in race relation, WWI, and jazz. And would be an excellent book to read together, either as a class or family, to process the events. There’s a lot to think about here.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A series of profiles of eight native Alaskan children. Profiles feature pictures of the kids in their everyday lives and often in native dress.
I looked this one up first on Debbie Reese’s AICL blog and she doesn’t appear to have a review. However she mentions another book that recommends it with reservations.
From my own reading of it I thought it was an interesting book. I love that they were little slices of life and it talked a lot about how many of these kids are trying to recapture their cultures that were forcibly taken from them. The essays don’t go into detail about it, but many of them do mention it.
It does use the word Eskimo which I thought was something you weren’t supposed to do, so I found that a little confusing. The pictures are a bit dated as well and I couldn’t help but wonder how different life might be today with Internet access and more technology.
I also wondered how these children, who would now be in their twenties, are passing their cultures on to their children and if they’ve kept up with their desire to keep their cultures alive.
What surprised me most was that while reading it at bedtime to myself, my four year old daughter was captivated by it. She asked what it was about and, not wanting to engage her too much, I said it was a book about children who lived very far up north in Alaska. Instead of putting her off she became very curious and kept asking questions about the children. Where did they live? Did they live in houses that far North? What kind of clothes did they wear? What did they eat? I explained to her that they were native people and that they had a culture and celebrations and languages that were different than ours, but that were like our German culture and celebrations. I finally had to promise to read some of the profiles to her the next day.
I know there may be reservations about the book and how it portrays and handles native culture, but the book piqued my daughter’s interest. Not only can it be exposure to these tribes and children, but it can be a jumping off point for learning more and for discussions about why these children are needing to bring their native cultures back. I suspect this would be a good book to add to a collection that features other strong books about native Alaskan cultures.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
For the summer reading lists I was trying to get some newer, more diverse titles into the suggested titles sections. None of the previous titles were bad, they were just older lists. There was almost no poetry on the lists and I wanted to expose the kids to some good titles in that genre. I also wanted to show parents of older kids (third and fourth grade) that it’s okay for their kids to still read picture books. Many picture books are actually harder to read than chapter books. Plus they’re beautiful. Why turn kids off to them? This post is considerably shorter than the chapter book review mania. Many of the picture books I added are ones I have already reviewed, but I wanted to get a few thoughts down about the following titles.
Orangutanka: A Story in Poems written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renee Kurilla
From GoodReads: All the orangutans are ready for a nap in the sleepy depths of the afternoon . . . all except one. This little orangutan wants to dance! A hip-hop, cha-cha-cha dance full of somersaults and cartwheels. But who will dance with her? Written in bold poems in the tanka style, an ancient Japanese form of poetry that is often used as a travel diary, this exuberant orangutan celebration from acclaimed poet Margarita Engle will make readers want to dance, too!
The illustrations in this book are gorgeous and adorable. The story is cute, but the book really shines in that it encourages kids to write their own tanka poems and do their own orangudance. Engle has included some really interesting information in the back of the book too.
This would be the perfect book for kids who love animals, particularly apes and monkeys. In the classroom it would be a great book for units on conservation, environment, habit and habit destruction, Southeast Asia, and poetry.
Don’t be fooled by the word count, it’s amazing what Engle can convey through a few short poems. You get a sense of where the orangutans live, how they live and see the adventure the older sister has with some children visiting the wildlife preserve.
I put this on the third grade list, but it could have gone on any of the younger lists and really even onto the fourth grade list. A third grader could handle the text on their own I think, but it would make an excellent read aloud and I suspect there are animal lovers in fourth grade that would adore the pictures and poems.
From GoodReads: Born in 1905, Anna May Wong spent her childhood working in her family’s laundry in Los Angeles s Chinatown. Whenever she could afford it, Anna May slipped off to the movies, escaping to a world of adventure, glamour, and excitement. After seeing a movie being filmed in her neighborhood, young Anna May was hooked. She decided she would become a movie star!
Anna May struggled to pursue an acting career in Hollywood in the 1930s. There were very few roles for Asian Americans, and many were demeaning and stereotypical. Anna May made the most of each limited part. She worked hard and always gave her best performance. Finally, after years of unfulfilling roles, Anna May began crusading for more meaningful roles for herself and other Asian American actors.
This was an incredible story. I had no idea who Anna May Wong was although I knew there was discrimination and racism in early Hollywood (and there probably still is). Wong is an interesting figure. She dreamed of being an actress and despite her parents objections she made that dream happen for herself. Thankfully her parents eventually supported her, with her father driving her to auditions even though he didn’t understand her desire. Wong went on to see the racism in Hollywood and want to change it. She was in lots of films and her early films often had her playing a stereotypical Chinese woman (either a shrinking violet or a tiger lady). When she began to have more clout and when she began to realize the impact she had as a role model she decided to fight against these stereotypical portrayals.
I put this on our second grade list because they study a few Asian cultures in the second grade curriculum (primarily Vietnamese and Japanese). The book is actually much closer to a fourth or fifth grade reading level (maybe higher?). It’s long, but it’s really interesting and we encourage our families to read aloud with their students all the way through lower school. I also chose the book because it’s a California story. Anna May was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and her father lived and worked right here in Sacramento. There’s nothing like a good story that hits close to home.
From GoodReads: Cesar Chavez is known as one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. When he led a 340-mile peaceful protest march through California, he ignited a cause and improved the lives of thousands of migrant farmworkers. But Cesar wasn’t always a leader. As a boy, he was shy and teased at school. His family slaved in the fields for barely enough money to survive.
Cesar knew things had to change, and he thought that–maybe–he could help change them. So he took charge. He spoke up. And an entire country listened.
I am embarrassed to admit I knew virtually nothing about Cesar Chavez despite living in the capital of California. Harvesting Hope was a lot longer and more detailed about Chavez than I expected, but that was fantastic. There was a lot of information about his formative years and his beginnings as an activist. The book never read like a dry nonfiction, though. The story was incredibly engaging.
Morales pictures really add to the book too. The warm inviting colors give a sense of the happiness Chavez felt growing up on his family farm. They also really bring his march to Sacramento to life and are just plain beautiful.
As a read aloud it would work for much younger audiences (down into first grade), but tackling it on their own a child would need to be older. It touches on issues of racism and discrimination so be prepared for conversations about those topics. It’s length really does make it better suited to second or third grade and up. Excellent picture book biography.
From GoodReads: This inspirational picture book biography, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, tells the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who bicycled across Ghana–nearly 400 miles–with only one leg. With that achievement he forever changed how his country treats people with disabilities, and he shows us all that one person is enough to change the world.
I liked the message in this book and obviously the story is incredibly inspiring. It is not a detailed picture book biography, but a telling of the story of how Emmanuel came to ride around Ghana and fight for the rights of disabled people in his country. I think this makes it the perfect type of biography for younger kids and for whetting kids appetite for books about activists and/or to get the interested in these types of causes.
I think it’s both important to help children see that people live differently around the world and to encourage them to want to help. I also think the book does a great job showing that you shouldn’t let society’s perception of you hold you back if there is something you want to accomplish, and that’s an excellent thing for kids to hear.
From GoodReads: A bilingual collection of poetry by acclaimed Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcon celebrating family, community, nature, and the positive power of dreams to shape our future.
This is a beautiful collection of poems about dreams from Alarcon (who visited our school a number of years ago!). The poems are all fairly short, but they really lend themselves to discussing the craft of poetry. There is a fair amount of word play and a need to understand that dreams and dreaming can mean a lot of different things to different people.
I think this is a great book for exposing children to beautiful poetry, but I really think it would make a great read and discuss book for parents and children or for a class. The book also clearly shares some of Alaracon’s experiences growing up and talks about his family which makes for more interesting discussion about how he has shared these memories as poems instead of short stories or picture books.
The dual language format makes the book accessible to a lot more kids and families (hopefully). Our students take a foreign language in lower school so I included it on the list for anyone who may also be interested in hearing the language they are learning and for kids who might be able to identify a word here or there.
From GoodReads: In this stunningly illustrated introduction to the world’s most beautiful birds, Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker pay homage to an alphabet of birds in all their feathery fancies. From Warblers to Blue-tits and Kakapos to Owls, Roussen’s playful, melodic poem is complemented beautifully by Walker’s delicate illustrations.
Beautiful Birds is incredibly illustrated. The colors alone practically glow on the page (this picture doesn’t do it justice). The birds are so sculptural and really reminiscent of Charley Harper. The text is clever and draws some really interesting connections as well as introduces some unusual, but beautiful, birds.
I put this on our first grade list because it is a concept alphabet book and they study birds in the spring. However I first got the book for my own daughter who was so taken with it we had to buy our own copy which we have read again and again. There is a very interesting twist/reveal at the very end of the book where you realize there is an actual narrator. My daughter finds this twist riotously funny and laughs every time.
A great book for bird lovers. Also, don’t miss the end papers where the eggs inside the front cover hatch into these darling little fluff balls inside the back cover.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: What does it take to be an astronaut? Excellence at flying, courage, intelligence, resistance to stress, top physical shape — any checklist would include these. But when America created NASA in 1958, there was another unspoken rule: you had to be a man. Here is the tale of thirteen women who proved that they were not only as tough as the toughest man but also brave enough to challenge the government. They were blocked by prejudice, jealousy, and the scrawled note of one of the most powerful men in Washington. But even though the Mercury 13 women did not make it into space, they did not lose, for their example empowered young women to take their place in the sky, piloting jets and commanding space capsules. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is the story of thirteen true pioneers of the space age.
A few years ago PBS ran a really good series called When We Left Earth about the US space program. It was very well done and incredibly interesting, but if you were left wondering where all the women were, here is your answer. Like When We Left Earth, Almost Astronauts was so interesting. These impressive female pilots underwent most of the testing that the male astronauts who actually got to go into space did. And they did better than the men. In fact the majority of people who worked with them thought they would be excellent candidates for the space program. But these women had an uphill battle. They were up against a wall of sexism that wanted to keep them in the home and keep them from making waves. There were undertones of racism, too. People worried that letting women into the space program would set a precedent that would force them to allow in minorities and so they didn’t want to open that door.
This is certainly nonfiction, but Stone does some leading and hinting that makes it sound like she has inserted some opinion. I’m not saying she’s wrong, but sometimes she sounds like she’s placing a lot of blame on NASA when sexism and misogyny were endemic to US culture. Women had uphill battles in all sorts of fields and really just getting into the workforce. Stone mentions on numerous occasions that women in the 1960s were not allowed to rent a car or get a loan without a man’s signature.
There are some really terrible revelations in the book and you won’t look at the space program the same way again. It took NASA until 1978 to admit women into the program and it wasn’t until 1983, when Sally Ride went up in Challenger, that women in the US were sent into space. (Russia sent their first woman up in 1963, TWENTY years earlier.) Several of the original astronauts (including some big names) were against allowing women into the space program. John Glenn and Scott Carpenter both testified against allowing women into the space program in a Congressional hearing on the matter. Glenn even made several jokes in poor taste and questioned their abilities. I would like to mention that Jerrie Cobb, the woman who underwent all the same testing as Glenn and surpassed him, had logged more 2,000 more flight hours than Glenn as well.
Not only are these women excellent role models for our girls (and boys!) they are a good reminder of how hard women fought for us so we could enjoy the relative equality we do today. There has been a lot of talk about the pay gap between men and women lately, but I think it’s important not to forget how far we have come. Certainly this book can have a wide audience. Space exploration and history is always a popular topic. But I think anyone interested in those topics should read this. It helps give a much more complete picture of that history.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine’s powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.
Josephine is the perfect example of what picture book biographies should be. For starters it really includes good information about her. After finishing it I felt like I had a good sense of the events in her life as well as who she was. Sure, this isn’t the definitive biography, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a student use it in a report. Plus it was meaty enough without feeling like you’re reading something for a report.
The book needs to be taken as a whole package. Every element works so well together. The story of her life is broken out into chapters which are introduced with a two page spread of a curtain rising on a new set. Perfect for the stage-loving Josephine. Every so often there is a two page spread that is just a colored background with text on it. This is particularly effective for getting information across without feeling like a dry page of text. The writing is also very lyrical making it incredibly readable.
Robinson’s illustrations are beautifully stylized and Josephine is always recognizable by her large, elongated eyes. The bold solid colored backgrounds make the modern, graphical figures pop off the page. The illustrations feel old and new at the same time, like something from the sixties but with fresh, bright colors.
And Josephine was such an amazing person. She is a true rags to riches story, but she also worked tirelessly to fight against segregation and the prevailing attitude in the US at the time that blacks were inferior to whites. She practiced what she preached too, insisting that audiences be mixed and adopting 12 children all of different ethnicities. She’s just an interesting person to read about. Flashy and energetic, quirky and confident Josephine’s life was anything but average.
I haven’t seen such a good use of typeface in a picture book in a long time (ever?). The author pulls out words and makes them all caps emphasizing them. But they aren’t random words. They’re words with significance for the scene, the story, and for discovering who Josephine was. There are also quotes from Josephine throughout the text and these are printed in an entirely different (and fancier) font that is much larger. I think that emphasizes Josephine’s larger-than-life presence as well as making it clear they are her words. Other books have attempted mixed fonts and it just ends up looking like a sloppy ransom note. Not here. This looks polished, intentional, and adds to the story.
My one regret about the book is that there wasn’t any information about what happened to her children and her siblings. I’m a nosy person and I like to know about anyone mentioned in the text. But the book isn’t about her family. It’s about her and it does a fantastic job of sharing that story and sharing who she was. As I said, I would recommend this to kids writing biography reports. It’s fairly long so it would be better for upper elementary, but there isn’t any reason a middle schooler couldn’t pick this up and read it either for pleasure or for research. It’s a slightly smaller format than a normal picture book making it a little more appealing to older kids who might not want the stigma of reading a book with pictures. Highly recommended!