I’m on a biography kick instigated by my students, my personal reading history, and a big gift of books from Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. These beautiful picture books are tributes to people who stood out and up when most didn’t dare. These men and women approached life their own way, as they saw fit. They faced challenges and kept going to say and do what was in their hearts and on their minds. These outstanding people are diverse. They come from all walks of life; they are pursuing differing dreams. But, there is something about each one that ties them to the other. Those connections and how each reader connects is a journey I know my students will love.
This week I want to celebrate the lives of these amazing people and the gift of the storytellers, artists, and generous friends have given picture book biographies my students.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, by Don Tate, tells the story of slavery, but also a story of finding freedom and pursuing dreams. Tate writes in his author’s note,”I hope that young readers will see themselves in the story of George Moses Horton –a person of talents and hopes and dreams, and a desire to be free. Just like them. Horton’s passion to learn to read and write is inspirational, no matter where you are in your literacy journey. A remarkable man; offering timeless poetry.”
The cover of Edward Hopper Paint His World by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor pulled me in immediately. That iconic Nighthawk scene is one of my favorite paintings. What struck me about Hopper was the way he found a space for the way he saw the world, even when the way he saw differently. He passionately pursued his realistic renditions of the world in a time of revolutionary abstract art movements. Hopper’s quiet and studious personality explored art his way and found his unique style. He preserved. And believed, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist.”
The Iridescence of Birds A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper captures early days of the young master. He grew up in a gray mill town, with little light. Interestingly he grew up to be a painter who painted with wild colors the “Fauves” or wild beasts. Matisse credits and this book highlights, the influence of his mother. He found color and light in gray days from the red rugs his mother put on the dirt floors of their cottage to the pigeons his father gave him. The movement of color was all around the artist to be. The Iridescence of Birds is a tribute to Matisse’s love of birds and the love of his mother. “My mother loved everything I did.”
“It all started with a chicken who could walk backwards and forwards.” So begins The King of the Birds by Acree Graham Macam and pictures by Natalie Nelson tells the story of the young Flannery O’Connor. Her passion for more, persistence, and belief in her own ideas shows through in this tale of a little girl who grows up to be a life-long bird lover and writer who wrote honestly, no hold’s barred, about what she saw and thought.
Dorothea “… wants to show the world what she sees.” She saw things others couldn’t, things others missed. Dorothea’s Eyes by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Gerard DuBois shares Lange’s life. Through her challenges, (polio, her parents’ divorce, and loneliness) to her calling as a photographer in a time when women did not do such things. Dorothea’s Eyes discover the world. Once the stock market crashed and depression hit, she took to the road, documenting what she saw. She helped the country notice people who were not seen, the jobless, the hungry, the sick, during a difficult time in our nation’s history.
Nothing but trouble. That’s what everyone said about Althea Gibson. But she didn’t care what they said. She had so much energy and ability there was no way she wasn’t gonna be somebody. Nothing but Trouble, The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Greg Couch takes readers from her tomboy antics in Harlem to Wimbledon champion. Her talents got her noticed and people stood up for her. Dedicated to mentors everywhere, this book is a great tribute to a talented and driven female athlete and those who helped her along the way.
While Dorothea’s Eyes led her to greatness, John Coltrane was all ears. Before John was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls is a feast of images and words, “he heard hambones knocking in Grandma’s pot, Daddy strumming the ukulele,… he heard Grandpa’s Sunday sermons, Mama playing hymns…” This beautiful book highlight Coltrane’s early influences and influencers that fed his musical gifts.
I took those bright colors for granted. But before Bob and Joe Switzer, they did not exist. The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani is all about the invention and marketing of colors that glow in the daytime. The book tracks the brothers’ unplanned success in creating and marketing colors that glow in daylight.
Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box by David McPhail traces Potters early years painting the animals around her. Her wealthy parents gave her art lessons, but she refused to change her style which would become the drawings for the “little books for little hands” that are still famous today.
Claire A. Nivola’s book Life in the Ocean introduced me to the oceanographer, Sylvia Earle. As a young girl, Sylvia was an explorer and an observer of animal life. When her family moved to Florida, her “investigations” of life moved to the ocean. The study of the ocean has been her life’s work that continues. This biography contains a plea to educate ourselves about the ocean to care for it. Sylvia writes, “Looking into the eyes of a wild dolphin – who is looking into mine – inspires me to learn everything I can about them and do everything I can to take care of them… You can’t care if you don’t know.”
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate is a tale of the spirit of invention and inventors. Lonnie was one of those kids and is one of those adults, who is driven by creation and wonderment. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama he was always building and designing. He studied became an engineer, worked for NASA and all the while he was still at work in his own workshop inventing. The Super Soaker water gun was one of those inventions that every kid will recognize. The coolest thing about Lonnie is he is still busy working, solving problems and inventing.
The Nerdy Book Club’s recent post offers other biographies and nonfiction titles you can find here. Our children are lucky. We are lucky. Biographies engage on so many levels. They can be read as a story or as an invitation into the world of art, science, or athletics. This week I celebrate the joy of nonfiction picture books.
Thank you, Ruth, for having a place to celebrate weekly. Find more celebrations on her blog Discover, Play, Build.