Giang, Kristen Mai. The Rise (and Falls) of Jackie Chan. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-593-12192-4. $18.99. 40 p. Grades PK-3.
Cheng Long, or Jackie Chan as he is more commonly known, was born in China to poor, hard-working parents. Jackie’s father tried to instill the values of discipline and hard work into his young son, but Jackie struggled as a student and often found himself in trouble. When his parents were forced to find work in Australia, Jackie was enrolled in the China Drama Academy where he studied martial arts, acting, singing, and acrobatics for the next ten years. The training was often brutal and other students bullied Jackie, but with hard work and persistence he became one of the Academy’s premier performers, traveling throughout China. As Chinese Opera fell out of popularity, martial arts movies became all the rage. Jackie worked as a stuntman, eventually meeting Bruce Lee. As his career took off, Jackie developed his own style of martial arts stunts infused with a great deal of physical comedy. Illustrated by Alina Chau, with amusing onomatopoeia action words scattered throughout the story. Includes a Glossary of Chinese characters with Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, Bibliography, and Author’s Note, which further explores Jackie Chan’s extensive career.
THOUGHTS: This delightful picture book biography has a number of wonderful messages. Hard work and persistence are important, but so are staying true to yourself and sticking up for your friends. A wonderful selection for fans of martial arts, physical comedy, and movie legend Jackie Chan.
Picture Book BiographyAnne McKernan, Council Rock SD
Yang, Kelly, and various illustrators. Yes We Will: Asian Americans Who Shaped this Country. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-593-46305-5. unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.
Yes We Will, a picture book biography by acclaimed middle grade and young adult author Kelly Yang, explores the many ways that Asian Americans have found to belong and thrive in the United States. Yang opens with a little information about the Transcontinental Railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act, establishing some essential historical context. She then transitions to spotlighting individuals and their accomplishments. Very spare text accompanies showstopping illustrations by fifteen different artists. For example, “We’ll soar to new heights” is paired with Dan Santat’s two-page illustration of NBA player Jeremy Lin flying toward the hoop. Featured individuals include I.M. Pei, Kamala Harris, Vera Wang, Sunisa Lee, Yo-Yo Ma, and many others. Each illustrator’s style is perfectly matched to their subject. An Author’s Note provides more detail on each luminary, including notable quotes, firsts, and awards.
THOUGHTS: While this inspiring book can be read in minutes, it’s worth rereading to fully appreciate the stunning and varied artwork, as well as the range of achievements. Yes We Will is also a great way to kick off biographical research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from the past and the present.
Pimentel, Annette Bay. Pura’s Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries with Her Stories. Abrams, 2021. 978-1-419-74941-4. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades PreK-2.
Born in Puerto Rico, Pura Belpré grew up listening to her aubeula’s stories. When, as an adult, Puera left the island to move to New York City, she carried the stories of her aubeula and her homeland with her. In New York, Puera found a job at the 135th Street Library working with children. Belpré loved leading storytimes at the library, but rules said she could only tell stories from printed books. This meant the wonderful stories of her youth told to her by her abuela could not be shared because they were not written down. When she makes her case to her bosses, they agree that she can share her stories. Soon Puera is conducting outreach to the surrounding community, inviting all children to the library where she regularly leads bilingual storytimes, telling cuentos, some from print books, others not. Eventually Belpré wrote her stories down in book form and they were published, reaching an even wider population. Pimentel’s lyrical retelling of Puera Belpré’s story will introduce this important figure in librarianship to new audiences. The text is primarily in English, but Spanish words and phrases are incorporated at various points throughout the story. Magaly Morales’ vibrant digital illustrations capture Belpre’s energy when storytelling and interacting with children.
THOUGHTS: This engaging biography shines a spotlight on an important figure in librarianship. Belpre was a trailblazer who strove to make public libraries more inclusive and welcoming to all. This title would pair well with Belpre’s story Pérez y Martina, which is referenced several times in Puera’s Cuentos.
Todd, Traci N. Nina: A Story of Nina Simone. Christian Robinson, illustrator. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-1-524-73728-3 p. 56 p. $18.99. Grades 2-5.
The world knew her as Nina Simone, but she was born Eunice Katherine Waymon. Born in North Carolina to a family that surrounded themselves with music, Eunice learned to play the piano very early. She was a musical child that would find rhythm in all aspects of her life, playing piano at the church where her Mama preached or playing Jazz music with her Papa at home. Author Traci N. Todd and illustrator Christian Robinson have created a gorgeous picture book biography about the life of Nina Simone. With a supportive family and community and an influential piano teacher, Nina started playing and singing in bars and concert halls. Audiences were enthralled with her sweet and soulful voice. But as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Nina’s voice took on a powerful tone, almost booming, and her music became a powerful protest against racial inequities. She was known not only as a brilliant musician but an influential activist. Amplifying Nina’s humanity with direct and straightforward text and bold and brilliant artwork, Todd and Robinson created a compelling and masterful piece of art. The ending is powerful, perfect, and hopeful.
THOUGHTS: This picture book is so attractive, and it pulls the reader into each page with the story and the illustrations. Learning about Nina and her life from childhood to adulthood was a joy! From the dedication at the beginning of the book to the author’s note in the back of the book, there is much to absorb! I was sad to see it end! This book is recognized as a 2022 ALA Notable Children’s Book and has received several other accolades and praises. Nina should not be missed!
Borden, Louise. Full Speed Ahead! America’s First Admiral: David Glasgow Farragut. Calkins Creek, 2021. 978-1-684-37905-7. 224 p. $18.99. Grades 5-9.
“Full speed ahead!”…it’s probably a phrase that most of us have heard before. Yet many may not know that this phrase became part of American popular culture after it was spoken in a Civil War naval battle by Union Rear Admiral David Farragut. Author Louise Borden chronicles Farragut’s life and career in her biography in verse Full Speed Ahead! Farragut first joined the navy as a midshipman at age nine. He steadily rose through the ranks and distinguished himself on missions around the world, including in the War of 1812, in the Caribbean, around Cape Horn, and in the Atlantic. When the Civil War broke out, Farragut devoted himself to the Union cause. He led the naval fleets that captured the Confederate strongholds of New Orleans and Mobile Bay. After the war, he was promoted once more and became the first ever Admiral in U.S. Naval history. The text is supplemented by numerous photographs, paintings, drawings, letters, and maps.
THOUGHTS: A biography told in verse of a 19th century naval hero might not be the first choice of those browsing the library shelves, so some booktalking may be required for this title. But history buffs who take a chance on the title will be rewarded with an engaging life story of an American hero. An additional purchase for libraries with history fans.
Yang, James. A Boy Named Isamu: A Story of Isamu Noguchi. Viking, 2021. 978-0-593-20344-6. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.
Author/illustrator Yang introduces readers to a quiet, introverted boy named Isamu. Born to an American mother and Japanese father, Isamu was an outsider in both cultures, alone, but never alone. Instead, Isamu found comfort in nature, fascinated by the color, shape, texture, and pattern he found all around him. Stones were particularly special. A day spent in the company of the trees, the sand, the rocks, and the sea was a day well spent. This observant, thoughtful boy grows up to be a renowned sculptor, combining geometric shapes and natural elements like granite into stunning artwork. This stunning, Caldecott honor book gives readers a moment in the life of Isamu Noguchi, perhaps the day he became captivated by the elemental world around him. An author’s note gives further details into Noguchi’s life as a sculptor. The digital artwork enhances the gentle feel of the narrative, emphasizing Noguchi’s delight in being alone with nature.
THOUGHTS: The beautiful text and illustrations will send readers to learn more about this fascinating artist.
Schofield-Morrison, Connie. Stitch by Stitch: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly Sews Her Way to Freedom. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-8234-3963-8. 45 p. $18.99. Grades 2-5.
Born into slavery, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly learned to read, write, and sew at a young age. She became a very talented seamstress and worked tirelessly to earn the patronage of some of the most fashionable women of St. Louis. Eventually, she was able to buy her and her son’s freedom and move to Washington, D.C. There, she continued work as a seamstress, making gowns for many prominent women in history, including the wives of Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Quotes from Keckly’s own memoir are interspersed throughout the book, and back matter features an author’s note, timeline, and bibliography. This intriguing biography of a remarkable and heretofore little-known figure is a solid addition to elementary biography collections.
THOUGHTS: I had never heard of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly before reading this book but was struck by her determination and perseverance. Despite the cruelty and hardships she faced as a slave early in life, she went on to become a successful businesswoman. As if this “hard work pays off” message isn’t enough to warrant purchase, the book will also help strengthen biography collections that may be lacking stories about African American women.
Yolen, Jane. The Leather Apron Club: Benjamin Franklin, His Son Billy and America’s First Circulating Library. Charlesbridge, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-580-89719-8. $17.99. Grades 2-4.
This latest offering by Jane Yolen is a picture book biography of Ben Franklin’s oldest child, William. Told in first person by Billy, the story explores his days as an eight year old apprentice, helping his father in their print shop. Although he enjoys the work, Billy would rather be outside playing with his cousin James. Ben has enough of his son’s wild ways and hires a tutor to provide instruction to both boys. At first, they find their schooling boring, until the day the teacher begins reading Homer’s The Odyssey. Unlike James, William is captivated by the tale and wants to hear more. Soon he begins reading the epic on his own. His father tells his son that there are many other wonderful books like this at the Leather Apron Club. The pair visit the circulating library, the first of its kind, and Billy is amazed at the number of books and their brightly colored covers. Soon he meets other members of the club and participates in discussions with them about politics, history, finance, among other topics. The young Master Franklin observes that “…Books…opened up Worlds once closed to me…” and he vows to “Do More.” to do good in the world. The text is written according to the capitalization rules of the 18th century, meaning that even most common names begin with a capital. Sprinkled throughout the story are fitting quotations from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Wendell Minor’s watercolor illustrations are done on a large scale and bring the story to life. The back matter contains an author’s note with more information about William’s adult life, the Leather Apron Club, and Franklin’s almanac. Yolen states that she got the idea for this book after hearing a speaker discuss the Leather Apron Club and its lending library at the White House.
THOUGHTS: Children will enjoy listening to this story of a famous American’s son, although they may be surprised to learn which side he supported during the American Revolution. It works in social studies units as an introduction to Colonial America and will be appreciated by history buffs. Yolen’s picture book is a tribute to the power of libraries and books and is a worthwhile purchase for all elementary collections.
Biography Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
973.30922 Personal Narratives–American Revolution
Yelchin, Eugene. The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-21552-6. $16.99. 201 p. Grades 5-8.
Eugene (Yvevgeny) Yelchin lives in the USSR during the height of Cold War communism, and all he wants to do is find his own “artistic talent,” usually of an athletic nature, so that he can live a better life. In the USSR, most people are poor, but people with artistic talent are more valuable to the country, and they often enjoy more comfortable living conditions and greater opportunities to work and travel. Yelchin’s parents try everything to discover his athletic talent, but they eventually discover that he is a gifted artist. While Yelchin pursues his dream of becoming a talented member of Communist society, he begins to understand a more complicated truth; in the USSR it is not easy to play by the rules of Communism and also live an authentic life.
THOUGHTS: This brief memoir is easy to read, and the illustrations that accompany the text are a delightful addition to the story. Harder truths about life in Soviet Russia, and the tragic impacts of dictators like Stalin and Lenin, are gently introduced in a way that will encourage students to seek out further information. The book ends on a hopeful note that mirrors the path of the author’s own life. Recommended addition for any middle school biography section!
Beaty, Andrea. Aaron Slater, Illustrator. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-419-75396-1. $18.99. Grades K-4.
Aaron Slater loves stories! He loves to listen to them and draw his very own pictures. When it is time for him to go to school, he is so excited to be able to read and write his very own stories. The words, however, look like jumbled squiggles to him and don’t really make any sense. Instead of standing out like he used to, he decides to fit in and be like everyone else. When requested by a teacher to write a story, Aaron struggles until inspiration hits him and he is able to create his very own story his way. With the help and support of those around him, Aaron begins to overcome his obstacles and struggles, becoming a reader and a writer, as well as continuing his illustrating.
THOUGHTS: This is another great book by Andrea Beaty! Written in text style Dyslexie to help individuals with dyslexia, we learn of a famous illustrator’s struggles to become a storyteller, and gain inspiration along the way.