The United States v. Jackie Robinson

Picture book, biography
Interest level: elementary and middle school
5 out of 5 stars

It is well-known that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but this book does not focus on that part of his life. The author has chosen to focus on Robinson’s time in the military and the stand he took against racism during that time.

This story is important for children so they can see that Robinson was more than a gifted athlete, and that he faced racism while serving in the U.S. military. It makes him a multidimensional civil rights icon.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson
written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Balzer + Bray, 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-2287847

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Picture book, autobiography
Interest level: grades 1 through 5
5 out of 5 stars

This is the autobiography of a young boy who taught himself how to turn trash into a working windmill to generate electricity and pump water for his family’s farm in Malawi, Africa. During a famine, his family can no longer afford to pay for William Kamkwamba to attend high school. He discovers the local public library, where his fascination with machines and how they work leads him to read about windmills. His perseverance and ingenuity enable him to help his family and village learn to survive the seasons of drought.

Kamkwamba’s story is a story in perseverance and using resources around you. The story makes a perfect addition to a maker space and is ideal for a real-world example of the engineering design process.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; pictures by Elizabeth Zunon
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012
ISBN 978-0-8037-3511-8

Shark lady: The true story of how Eugenie Clark became the ocean’s most fearless scientist

Jess Keating has written another outstanding nonfiction picture book for young readers. This one tells the story of Eugenie Clark, who fell in love with sharks as a young girl and pursued her dream to study them.

Picture book, biography, nonfiction
Dewey: 597.3
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 3.7
4 out of 5 stars

Keating starts the book with young Eugenie Clark visiting an aquarium and seeing her favorite animals, the sharks. Eugenie loves to fantasize that she is swimming with sharks, or that she herself has a fin on her back and is a shark. She reads all the books she can find about sharks, and her mother buys her a fish tank so she can study and understand more about fish.

As she pursues her interest in college by studying zoology, we learn that people tried to discourage her because “some of her professors thought women weren’t smart enough to be scientists or brave enough to explore the oceans. And they said sharks were mindless monsters.” Clark went on to prove all those theories were incorrect — she was smart and brave enough, and through her research and studies she proved that sharks were smart and could be trained the way a dog was trained.

Keating wraps up Clark’s story when she was able to prove that she could train a shark. More details are provided in a timeline at the back of the book. An Author’s Note and Bibliography is also provided to give more interesting details and for further reading.

I read in another review that Keating left out key information about Clark’s mother being of Japanese descent and her father an “American” and how this mixed heritage meant she encountered prejudice. While I was interested in this information when it was presented in the Author’s Note, I did not feel that its absence detracted from the author’s purpose.

The tone of the book is clearly for younger children, I would say from age 4 through 8 primarily. I see this book as being more about encouraging children to pursue their dreams and not to let anyone stand in their way. This is especially true for girls in the field of science. Other books are mentioned in her bibliography that would be more appropriate for older readers who are more able to tackle multiple agendas in a story. For the length of a picture book, Keating has focused on the message that she wanted to share.
The illustrations by Marta Alvarez Miguens really match the tone of the text. The sharks in the story have round eyes, giving the animals an innocent look that matches Clark’s feelings towards them. I also love how the illustrator shows Clark as a child always surrounded by sharks. The scne where Clark is reading books about sharks i the library, includes sharks floating through the book stacks, showing the reader that they were always on Clark’s mind.

The illustrations, combined with the text make this a good introduction to a little known scientist in the field of sharks. There are some additional shark facts that are presented in the back of the book that children will also find fascinating.

Shark lady: The true story of how Eugenie Clark became the ocean’s most fearless scientist
written by Jess Keating; illustrations by Marta Alvarez Miguens
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017

Ada’s Ideas: the story of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer

This is a picture book biography of Ada Lovelace, who could be called the world’s first computer programmer.

Picture book, biography, nonfiction
Dewey: 510.92
Interest Level: 3 and up; Reading Level: 4.3
4 out of 5 stars

Ada has a fascinating background. Her father was Lord Byron, the poet and her mother was a wealthy woman who was a mathematician. Ada’s mother was very controlling, and didn’t want Lord Byron and his “wild ways” to influence their child, so she took Ada away at a month old and never allowed her to see her father.

Young Ada’s days were filled with structured learning and lots of studying numbers. After contracting the measles, she spent three years doing nothing but studying because she was too weak to walk. Ada grew up with almost no friends and was not allowed to pursue her own interests.
When she was 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, an engineer, mathematician, and inventor. Ada was enthralled with Babbage and his inventions of engines that would do mathematical calculations. Ada worked on complicated algorithms that would work in the Analytical Engine, and envisioned that eventually the Engine could be programmed to do more than just math, but also create pictures, music, and words. In other words, she envisioned the computer.

Ada’s story is one that inspires people to never give up their dreams and to not be held back by the limits society or other people place on your life. This book would have meaning for older students, grades 5 and up. There is a biography in the back of the book. It is rather small, which could be why the book is fairly vague and reads in a general manner.

Ada’s ideas: The story of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer
by Fiona Robinson
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016

The Youngest Marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist

Audrey Faye Hendricks is one of the lesser-known figures of the civil rights movement. At the age of nine, she played a significant role in wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws.

Picture book, biography, Civil Rights movement
Interest level: grades 1-5; Reading level: 4.7
4 out of 5 stars

This is a strong addition to Civil Rights books that have been published for children in recent years. Children often only hear of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I feel it is important to expand the narrative to include some of the other human stories of the movement.

What makes Audrey Faye Hendricks unique and such a great story for children, is that she was nine years old when she first stood up to injustice and made a difference. Not only is this story important because it expands the scope of the Civil Rights movement for young readers, but because it gives them a hero that is their age. That’s an important message for children — seeking to end injustice is not restricted by age.

The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton are perfect. While they have a comic-like feel, they are still powerful. This scene of Hendricks in a jail cell is an evocative depiction of how it must have felt for Hendricks as the youngest marcher arrested. It was tough for her to remain strong in those conditions.

The back of the book includes an Author’s Note that tells more about Hendricks, including information about her adult life, a Civil Rights time line, a recipe for Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter, and a list of bibliographic sources.

This book is well-researched and presented in a sensitive manner for young readers. It helps children understand that there were many people involved in gaining civil rights for people of color, not just Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

The youngest marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist
by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-0070-1

Radiant Child: the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

An amazing picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat that focuses on his life as a boy and his love of art.

Radiant child : the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
by Steptoe, Javaka
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-21388-2
Picture book, biography
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 29 cm
Dewey: 740; Int Lvl: K-5; Rd Lvl: 5.2
Lexile measure: 1050
5 out of 5 stars

Radiant Child is a biography geared to young readers that introduces Jean-Michel Basquiat and focuses on his early life. As a young boy, Jean-Michel grew up in Brooklyn, creating drawings from the moment he woke up until he went to bed and dreamed of images.

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.

He was heavily influenced by his Puerto Rican mother who would take him to to museums, draw with him on the floor, and help him see art in the everyday world around him. His mother had a mental illness and was removed from their home. He spent the rest of her life visiting and sharing his artwork with her.

As a teenager, Jean-Michel moved to New York City and would stay with friends while creating artwork first as a graffiti artist, but then creating collage-style works for gallery exhibitions. He would paint and collage on “anything he could find.” The same words that described his art as a child, continue to describe his professional artwork:

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.

Javaka Steptoe has created a book that should be held as the standard for children’s picture book biographies. He has selected an interesting, yet lesser-known individual who plays a significant part in the modern art movement. Steptoe states in an author’s note in the back

Basquiat’s success seemed to me to begin an era of inclusion and diversity in fine arts where there had been little to none. This meant as a young African American artist coming up that my chances of having my voice heard and achieving mainstream success were majorly expanded.

In addition to an interesting person, Steptoe has created captivating illustrations that were inspired by Basquiat and are interpretations of his work. This provides the reader with a sense of what Basquiat’s art was like on each page of the story. There is further information in the back of the book that provides more details about Basquiat, including information about his adult life and early death. Steptoe also clues readers in to recurring motifs and symbolism in Basquiat’s paintings and provides an author’s note to detail what he hopes readers understand from his book. While I find Steptoe’s illustrations captivating and engaging, I would have liked the information in the back of the book to include at least one of Basquiat’s original works for comparison.

Overall, this book is an exemplary picture book biography that is perfect for young readers. It could be used in art classes to begin a creative session where students create art using found materials from their environment. In the opening “About This Book,” Steptoe states that “I invite my readers to create using the materials, people, and places in their environment.” This book is meant to be an active part of expressing creativity.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Erdos

A fascinating story about a quirky mathematician whose collaborations changed the world of mathematics.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Erdos
by Deborah Heiligman, pictures by LeUyen Pham
Roaring Brook Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-59643-307-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Dewey: 510.92, biography
Description: 37 pages : color illustrations ; 26 cm
YHBA intermediate nominee, 2015-2016
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 1.8
4 out of 5 stars

I feel dual purpose books are very effective and are appropriate for many different genres. The idea of entertaining several different levels of maturity at once is something that children’s cartoons have been doing forever. If you’ve ever sat through a Disney movie as an adult, you will notice that young children laugh at different things than the adults do.

In a similar way, a book can also appeal to multiple audiences. The Boy Who Loved Math: the improbably life of Paul Erdos is a picture book that has a first/second grade reading level and is meant to appeal to lower elementary age children. The text and style of illustrations tell the story of a quirky boy who loved math, but had difficulties in most other areas of life. Children will love the part of the story where he learns to butter his bread as an adult.

The author and illustrator haven’t just created a picture book for elementary age readers, however. The many pages of author and illustrator notes in the back add depth to the book and make it usable up through high school. It is almost like solving a puzzle to go back through the illustrations and locate all the different types of prime numbers that have been included.

By appealing to multiple age levels, The Boy Who Loved Math is a book that can be used to share interests between adults and children. I feel that the wider a book can be read and shared, the longer life and greater impact that book will have. What is impressive about The Boy Who Loved Math is that there are not many books about famous mathematicians. Most don’t make for very interesting stories.

The Boy Who Loved Math was nominated for a 2015-2016 Young Hoosier Book Award. I am guessing that this book was probably nominated by an adult who felt this was a worthwhile book for children. Most children would not seek this book out on their own. By appealing to a wide audience, this book was nominated for an award and was seen by a larger audience than it would have if the illustrations and back notes were not as extensive.