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.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the creation of The Snowy Day

A Poem for Peter is an outstanding work of narrative nonfiction that functions as both biography, and background information for Ezra Jack Keat’s most well-known picture book, The Snowy Day.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; pictures by Lou Fancer & Steve Johnson
Viking, 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-28768-2
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative verse
52 pages : color illustrations ; 25 x 28 cm
Interest Level: grades 2 and up; Reading Level: 3.2
5 out of 5 stars


In A Poem for Peter, Andrea Davis Pinkney has created a book that pays homage to Keats’ award winning book, A Snowy Day, as well as provides a biography of the fascinating man who created Peter and shared his snowy interlude with the world.

As a biography, Pinkney uses a narrative verse style to tell the story of Keats’ early life, from birth until he wrote A Snowy Day in 1962. This style of writing makes an excellent read-aloud experience, and is an engaging way to introduce younger children to the idea of reading a biography for pleasure. Many students do not think of biographies for pleasure reading, but this book would make an excellent example of nonfiction books that read like fiction.

A Poem for Peter starts with a biography of Keats, who was born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz. His parents were Polish immigrants who struggled to provide for the family in Brooklyn, New York. From a very young age, Ezra was a gifted artist, but his father was “worried about his son’s dream. Feared for what he couldn’t see. An artist was a strange, impractical thing to be. You couldn’t earn a decent wage giving imagination wings.” Secretly though, his father would save money to buy paint for Ezra, who also had the support of teachers and friends.

The day before Ezra was to graduate from high school, his father died of a heart attack, and his dreams of attending art school went away. Part of what makes A Poem for Peter such a wonderful tribute to Keats is that the illustrations are created using the collage style that Keats himself used in his books. The image that is on the page telling about his father’s death, is incredibly powerful:
Untitled You can see the cap and gown, as well as the road that he was all set to travel, disintegrating into fragments. The story continues with Keats working odd jobs to earn money, joining the Air Force during WWII, and then working on comic books, until finally he is given the opportunity to create his own picture book. Pinkney has included a thread throughout the story that lets us see how all of Keats’ life has led him to create Peter and his snowy escapades. The illustrators even include original source documents to show where Keats got the idea for Peter: Untitled
For over 20 years, Keats carried this clipping from Life magazine, until he found the perfect use for the image of the expressive young boy.

I have always loved the simple, yet timeless story that is told in The Snowy Day. The joy of playing in the snow as a child was perfectly conveyed by Ezra Jack Keats using a collage style for illustrations. Peter’s story is one that all children can relate to and that brings back fond memories for adults.

What is truly amazing about The Snow Day is that it features a black child who is meant to represent the common experiences of childhood. In 1962, Keats noticed that the main characters in books that he was being paid to illustrate were all white. Keats had this to say about Peter:

“Then began an experience that turned my life around,” he wrote, “working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I’d begun to illustrate children’s books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book.” (from Ezra Jack Keats Foundation: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ezras-life/)

I highly recommend this book to all teachers and librarians, especially for upper elementary and older. This book, through both the biographical story, as well as the additional information in the back — Ezra’s Legacy; Keats, the Collage Poet; list of books written and illustrated by Keats; and a list of sources — provides a complete picture of what life was like during 1962 and why The Snow Day was such an important contribution to children’s literature.

Lesson ideas
School librarians could open a study of Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day at the beginning of winter. The librarian could read A Poem for Peter to build inquiry, then follow up with a reading of The Snowy Day. Then, using ideas from the Novel Engineering website (http://www.novelengineering.org/books/the-snowy-day), the librarian could lead students through a problem-based learning activity that has them solving some of the problems Peter faces in the story using engineering design process. What could students design and create that would keep the snowball from melting in his coat pocket? Is there a machine that could help Peter participate in the snowball fight with the older kids?

Ezra Jack Keats Foundation lesson plans and activities: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ezras-books/the-snowy-day/
There are lots of fun activities that can extend the story of The Snowy Day. There is a read-aloud of the story on this site as well. There is also an author’s biography that is intended for children, as well as quotes from famous people who share their memories of The Snowy Day.

Scholastic Ezra Jack Keats author study: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/collection/ezra-jack-keats-author-study
This site includes extension activities and lessons plans. There is also a science themed lesson plan for The Snowy Day.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshal

This is an extremely well-written biography about a little known hero of the west. Bad News for Outlaws makes for an excellent read-aloud for older elementary classrooms, and is a great companion text for units on slavery, the Old West, or life after the Civil War.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshall
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Books, Minneapolis, 2009
ISBN 978-0-8225-6764-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2010; YHBA intermediate book nominee, 2011-2012
Description: 41 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 31 cm.
Dewey: 363.28
Interest Level: 3-6; Reading Level: 5.5
Lexile measure: 860
5 out of 5 stars


The story starts out with an exciting showdown which completely grabs the reader’s attention and draws them into the story of Bass Reeves — “Bass ducked his head, dove off his horse, and rolled to his feet just as a fourth bullet clipped his hat brim.”

Much of Bass Reeve’s story reads like a tall tale. From his imposing size to his impressive record capturing outlaws, Vaunda Nelson shares remarkable stories that bring this former slave and lawman to life. The tone of the text sounds like an old fashioned western, so the glossary in the back is helpful to young readers who are probably not familiar with phrases such as “didn’t cotton to,” which means didn’t like.

Christie’s illustrations are bold paintings that capture the vast and untamed land, as well as show Bass as a proud and impressive figure, in his signature black coat, hat, and badge.

The back of the book includes a glossary, timeline, suggestions for further reading, and a detailed bibliography. Nelson has done a thorough job researching Bass Reeves and has carefully documented as much dialogue and information as she can. This is important so that readers are not misled and know they are learning facts. There is also a very moving Author’s Note that talks about the importance of learning about a black hero of the Old West.

While the stories about chasing down outlaws is intriguing, this story also provides an introduction into the history of Indian Territory, as well as what life was like for slaves after the Civil War. This information is not glossed over, but is presented in a sensitive manner that is appropriate for young readers.

Additional Resources

Lesson Plan from Coretta Scott King Book Awards: http://www.ala.org/emiert/sites/ala.org.emiert/files/content/cskbookawards/CSK%20Discussion%20Guide1.pdf

Lesson Plan from Illinois School Library Media Association: http://www.islma.org/2012BluestemResources/BadNewsOutlaws.pdf

Lesson Plan from Social Studies Research and Practice: http://www.socstrpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/06536-Montgomery.pdf

Bass Reeves video (contains vintage photographs and reading of his obituary): https://youtu.be/bPJN62meSII

Billy’s Booger: a memoir (sorta)

William Joyce has managed to craft a story that every teacher should read to writing classes, and he’s created this gem out of boogers.

Billy’s Booger: a memoir (sorta)
by William Joyce and his younger self
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015
ISBN 978-1-4424-7351-5
40 unnumbered pages : color illustrations ; 26 cm
Picture book, memoir, fiction
Interest level: K-5; reading level: 4.9
Lexile measure: 750
5 out of 5 stars


I have to admit that this book caught me by surprise! I started to read it because…booger…duh! It’s a book about boogers, and no matter how old you are, boogers and farts are funny! William Joyce, who also wrote The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, has managed to craft a story that every teacher should read to writing classes, and he’s created this gem out of boogers.

Billy is an extremely creative boy who uses his imagination to: transport himself into the world of the comic strips; make math creative; and create sports that only he can excel at. Teachers and principals, and sometimes parents, don’t always appreciate Billy’s creative genius. When the school librarian launches a kid’s book contest, Billy goes all out! But unfortunately:

He didn’t win first place.
He didn’t win second place.
He didn’t win third place.
He didn’t get an honorable mention.
He didn’t get a note from his teacher.
He didn’t even get sent to the principal.

Billy is dejected and his family worries because “Billy is so normal now, it’s weird.” Billy’s classmates fall in love with his story and make Billy’s Booger the most checked out book in the library. Billy and his creative mind are back and ready for his next adventure!

There are several great messages in Billy’s story. Even though Billy didn’t officially win the writing contest and get a prize, that didn’t mean his story wasn’t good. Readers can see from the feedback Principal Blisterbaum left for Billy that his writing had some areas that needed work, such as spelling and punctuation. Published authors talk a lot about how much they have to edit their work, and Billy’s story brings that message to life.

I love how well received Billy’s story was among his peers. Books like the one that Billy wrote, and all those books that make reading teachers cringe because they are seen as lacking “literary value”–Captain Underpants and Guinness Book of World Records–are sometimes the perfect stories to capture the hearts of reluctant readers.

The hidden prize in this already wonderful story is that Billy’s book is actually tipped-in and readers get to read it and enjoy for themselves. It is special to note that this tipped-in book is actually the story that a young William Joyce wrote when he was in the fourth grade. Teachers that may share this book with their class should be sure to share this information, so the students can see how the creative young Billy has become the man who creates incredible books and films.

Cloth Lullaby

Cloth Lullaby: the woven life of Louise Bourgeois
Words by Amy Novesky; pictures by Isabelle Arsenault
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4197-1881-6
Picture book, biography
Interest level: grades 2-5; reading level: 4.4
3 out of 5 stars


From a visual perspective, Cloth Lullaby: the woven life of Louise Bourgeois is stunningly beautiful. Isabelle Arsenault did a wonderful job creating unique illustrations that are combinations of ink, pencil, pastel, watercolor, and photoshop.

Louise Bourgeois is a visual artist that is not well-known to children. It is important to introduce children to biographies of both the well-known and lesser-known artists to expand their knowledge and interest in the world. This book is meant to introduce Louise Bourgeois to children, and show how her childhood and relationship to her parents helped form her into the artist she became as an adult.

Unfortunately, I feel that the text of the story does not succeed in its mission of informing about Louise Bourgeois’ art, and the text will fail to engage young readers. There are an incredible number of metaphors in the story, and most of the time instead of helping to create an image, they feel as if the author is forcing the theme of weaving and spiders onto the reader.

Louise’s parents repaired tapestries for a living, and young Louise learned this trade at a young age. Because most wear occurs at the bottom of tapestries, this is the area that most needs repair, so Louise became adept at drawing feet. Instead of just sharing this interesting fact to readers, the author then adds, “Drawing was like a thread in a spider’s web.” This connection between drawing feet and a spider’s web made no sense to me, and is an example of how this metaphor is forced throughout the story.

The story ends with an image that I was not able to grasp, and doubt that young readers will either:

With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her–maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved. When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.”

I am not sure if this reference is to a real tapestry that she designed before she died, or if it is a metaphor for her life’s work. If it is real, I would have liked to have an actual image of this tapestry, but instead I feel like this meaning is just outside of my grasp.

An author’s note at the end provides a few more details about her life. It includes two photographs that show some of the spiders that she created. I would have also liked to see some of the cloth art that she made, being as that seemed to be a large focus of the story.

For students of art history, Cloth Lullaby would be an interesting read, but for elementary age children, the text and metaphors are too esoteric to be engaging.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? the story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? the story of Elizabeth Blackwell
by Tanya Lee Stone; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Christy Ottaviano Books, New York, 2013
ISBN 978-0-8050-9048-2
Picture book, biography
40 unnumbered pages : color illustrations ; 29 cm
Dewey: 610
Orbis Pictus Award, recommended book, 2014
Interest level: K-5
Reading level: 4.5
5 out of 5 stars


This is a wonderful picture book biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America. The story begins by informing the reader that there was a time when women were not allowed to be doctors. Many young readers will not be aware of this, and this somewhat shocking revelation makes a good hook as we then learn about Elizabeth Blackwell, from when she was a tough young girl up through her graduation from medical college.

The author includes some interesting details that helps readers get to know Blackwell. She was “a girl who tried sleeping on the hard floor with no covers, just to toughen herself up,” and “blood made her queasy.” It was when she was visiting a sick friend that she started to think about female doctors. The friend commented that “she would have much preferred being examined by a woman. She urged Elizabeth to consider becoming a doctor.”

Priceman’s gouache and india ink illustrations are colorful and flowing, and create a sense of movement that perfectly matches the text and the personality of Blackwell. Untitled

As Blackwell receives twenty-eight rejection letters from medical schools, Priceman has created an overwhelmed Blackwell surrounded by swirling letters and a series of “no’s.” Untitled

You turn the page, and there is one solid “Yes!” and the image of a figure carrying a suitcase halfway off the page. The juxtaposition of those two scenes brings the feelings of Blackwell to life.

The combination of an intriguing main character, engaging illustrations, and solid text that reads well would make this an excellent read-aloud opportunity. It would fit with children as young as kindergarten up through high school, if they were studying women’s rights.

The author has included a note at the back that fills in information around the main story. We learn of Blackwell’s infancy, as well as what happened after medical school. A source list is included.

The Library of Congress has a collection of Elizabeth Blackwell’s papers. You can view a handwritten letter from 1851 written by Blackwell concerning women’s rights.
Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awmss5/blackwell.html

The author’s website has a Teacher’s Guide and CCSS Connections publication available for download.
Teacher’s Guide: http://tanyastone.com/assets/files/Blackwell%20Reader%20Guide.pdf
CCSS Connections: http://tanyastone.com/assets/files/Blackwell%20Reader%20Guide.pdf

School Library Journal has teaching ideas for the book. This article includes an extensive list of online resources for more information about Elizabeth Blackwell.
The Classroom Bookshelf: http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2013/05/who-says-women-cant-be-doctors-the-story-of-elizabeth-blackwell/