Meltzer, Brad. Ordinary People Change the World. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021. $14.27 ea. $385.29 set of 27. Unpaged. K-3.
I am Frida Kahlo. 978-0-525-55598-8.
I am I. M. Pei. 978-0-525-55601-5.
I am Oprah Winfrey. 978-0-593-40582-6.
In this remarkable biography series, Brad Meltzer presents American icons in an extremely conversational, unintimidating manner. Beginning with their childhood, he tells each person’s story from his/her own point of view, focusing on personality traits that made each of them unique. Cartoon-like drawings and speech bubbles are interspersed with realistic images (like actual works of art) to make each story more intriguing. A timeline and photographs are included at the end of each book. I personally reviewed I am Frida Kahlo, and I absolutely loved the message being sent to the intended audience. Despite all of Frida’s difficulties in life – a bout with polio, a terrible bus accident, being ostracized because of her dress and actions – she remained true to herself and became a legend because of it. Not only does this encourage children to overcome curveballs in life, but it also sends them the message that they should be unafraid of being different. The format of these biographies definitely is unique and deserves to be considered for inclusion in all elementary biography collections.
THOUGHTS: This series would be extremely useful for biographical research as well as for character building activities. I also would recommend it to fans of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum on PBS Kids, as the television series was actually inspired by this book series. In addition, it is worth noting that there are 24 other books in the series with publication years before and after 2021.
921 Biography Julie Ritter, PSLA Member
Croy, Anita. Scientists Who Changed the World (series of 6). Crabtree, 2021. 64 p. $25.00 each. $150.00 Set of 6. Grades 5-8.
Albert Einstein. 978-0-778-78209-4.
Charles Darwin. 978-0-778-78218-6.
Galileo Galilei. 978-0-778-78219-3.
Sir Isaac Newton. 978-0-778-78221-6.
Rachel Carson. 978-0-778-78220-9.
Stephen Hawking. 978-0-778-78222-3.
Each of these books is divided into six chapters, covering 1. Biography, 2. Background (of the time period), 3. Breakthrough (scientific discoveries), 4. Key Ideas, 5. Reputation, and 6. Legacy. Croy interweaves the biography and ideas of the scientist well with the time period, making the person’s accomplishments more understandable for their enormity and effect. The design is full of charts, illustrations/photographs and frequent related text boxes, and also frequent white text on black background. Each chapter is set alongside a page printed with a quote or idea from the scientist. Examples include: “Newton said that gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it does not explain who or what set the planets in motion” (Sir Isaac Newton 33) and “Galileo said that modern discoveries proved that ancient writers did not have superior knowledge. However, if ancient writers could see what modern scientists could see, they would draw the same conclusions” (Galileo Galilei 33).
THOUGHTS: Useful for reports, but thanks to the inviting pages broken into readable segments, this series could also be enjoyed by the casual reader. It would be nice to see the series expanded in the same fashion.
Titles reviewed: Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton.
Biography Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Gutman, Dan. Wait! What? Muhammad Ali Was a Chicken? Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01706-6. 112 p. $6.99 (paperback). Grades 3-5.
In a fun, new nonfiction series from Dan Gutman, two kids (Paige and Turner) take turns trying to top themselves with the lesser known (yet still fascinating) facts of famous people. In fact, Muhammad Ali was a chicken when it came to flying, but they also discuss his bravery in the ring and standing up against the Vietnam War and social justice issues. With quotes and stats and illustrations along with the two narrators, the text is broken into curious and quick digestible bits of information. After some basic background, readers learn about the boxer Cassius Clay who changed his name to Ali for religious reasons. The stories about childhood are relatable for students, and the decisions from his fighting to his adulthood are explained in understandable terms without too much sugar coating. Ali was the Greatest for his showmanship and personality as much as his muscle and willpower, and Gutman gets into all those skills with interesting detail. Even teachers and adults will stop as they read to say, “Wait! What?” and want to learn more!
THOUGHTS: More titles are coming in this new series, including Amelia Earhart and Albert Einstein. Fans of the Weird School Fact books and the Who Was? biographies naturally will gravitate towards this nonfiction book.
Biography Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD
D’Aquino, Andrea. She Heard the Birds: The Story of Florence Merriam Bailey Pioneering Nature Activist. Princeton, Architectural Press, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-648-96050-5. $18.95. Grades 1-3.
This picture book biography is the story of a woman who made a difference. Florence Merriam Bailey grew up in the late 19th century with her family who loved nature. Her mother was an astronomer and her father took the family on a summer long camping trip where she loved to observe the forest animals. Florence’s favorite creatures were birds and she studied their behavior and songs. She strongly disliked the latest fashion in hats, which were adorned with feathers and even the actual carcasses of birds. Bailey and her classmates at Smith College initiated a successful boycott of these hats. Florence became an avid ornithologist and promoted watching birds in a natural setting with binoculars in contrast to scientists who studied them in laboratories. She was the author of a field guide and other books on birds and their methods of communication. The author’s full bleed illustrations are done using hand-painted collage, oil pastel and pencil. Readers will enjoy examining the many colorful birds that are depicted.
THOUGHTS: This book is a great choice for elementary collections. It could be used during Women’s History Month, Earth Day or in science units. Children will learn about the wonder and beauty of our feathered friends and may be inspired to do some birdwatching on their own.
921 Biography Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
Tsui, Bonnie, and Sophie Diao, illustrator. Sarah and the Big Wave: The True Story of the First Woman to Surf Mavericks. Henry Holt and Company, 2021. 978-1-250-23948-8. unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-2.
Sarah Gerhardt grew up surfing little, medium, and big waves (her favorite!) on Oahu’s North Shore, which is famous for its huge waves, some of which top the height of a five-story building. As one of just a few girl surfers, Sarah struggled to find the right size surfboards and wetsuits; luckily, she found a circle of friends that included a surfboard shaper who made boards that were just right for her. She later moved to California, where her new home was near Mavericks, the famous big-wave surf break. With its monster waves, “Mount Everest meets Niagara Falls” was a dangerous place to surf, and no woman had ever done it … until Sarah! Illustrator Sophie Diao captures Sarah’s history-making ride, and its epic scale, in a made-for-storytime flip-up page. Throughout Sarah and the Big Wave, Diao’s digitally rendered artwork beautifully captures the ever-changing colors of the ocean and the power of its biggest waves. A timeline of milestones in the history of women and surfing complete this fantastic picture book biography.
THOUGHTS: This upbeat, inspiring true story is positively swell.
Picture Book Biography Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Sorell, Traci. Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer. Millbrook Press, 2021. 978-1-541-57914-9. 32p. $19.99. Grades K-3.
Mary Golda Ross’s work as an aerospace engineer on several classified projects broke barriers not only for women but also for Native Americans. Many of the projects she worked on at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation remain a secret even today. Mary’s love of math, her motivation to pursue a well-rounded education, and her courage to secure a career in a male-dominated field earned her the respect of people around the world. During World War II, she worked on a team that improved the safety of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. As Lockheed’s first female engineer, she recruited other women to the field. In the 1950s, while the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union raged, Mary was one of 40 engineers recruited to work on top-secret aerospace projects. Additionally, her research about satellites and space travel ultimately contributed to the Apollo mission to the moon. Although her work drew national and worldwide attention, Mary never sought the spotlight. Her humble nature and quiet leadership blazed a trail, and throughout her lifetime, she never stopped encouraging young women and Native Americans to study math, science, and engineering. A note at the beginning of the book outlines several Cherokee values Mary’s family instilled in her, including gaining skills in all areas of life, cooperating and working well with others, humility, and helping ensure equal education and opportunities for everyone. Backmatter includes a timeline of major events in Mary’s life, an author’s note, and more information about the Cherokee values highlighted in the text.
THOUGHTS: This title is well-suited to STEM units as well as to units about female trailblazers. The backmatter spotlighting Cherokee values mirrors many of the soft skills schools emphasize today, so there are opportunities for discussion and connections. Pair with Margot Lee Shettterly’s Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.
Picture Book Biography Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD
Spires, Elizabeth. Kate’s Light: Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021. 978-0-8234-4348-2. 40pp. $18.99. Gr 3-5.
This picture book biography features Kate Walker, a German immigrant who was one of the first women on the Eastern Seaboard to be put in charge of an offshore lighthouse. Kate took responsibility for the Robbins Reef lighthouse in New York Bay when her husband, John, passed away. For more than 30 years, she carried out the grueling daily tasks of caring for and cleaning the light and siren, performing water rescues, and tending the light ‘round the clock. Although life wasn’t always easy, and was at times very lonely, Kate discovered life in the lighthouse also had its rhythms and its advantages, such as being able to watch the Statue of Liberty’s dedication through binoculars from the catwalk. Emily Arnold McCully’s watercolor and pen and ink illustrations, featuring mostly blues, greens, and grays, beautifully capture the constantly changing weather and water around the lighthouse. Two pages at the end of the book provide additional factual information about Kate and the challenges and obstacles she overcame during her 33 years at Robbins Reef. Primary source photographs also allow readers to glimpse real images of Kate going about her work in the lighthouse.
THOUGHTS: Pair with Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse for a nautical-themed storytime. Or, use both texts together for a fiction and nonfiction compare-and-contrast discussion. This would also be an excellent addition to women’s history units.
Picture Book Biography Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD
Sis, Peter. Nicky and Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01574-1. $19.95. Grades 3-6.
Peter Sis was visiting his native country (Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic) when he chanced upon a memorial for Englishman Nicholas Winton, credited with saving the lives of 669 Jewish children by establishing passage for them out of Nazi-occupied Prague to foster families in England. Sis was stunned that he had never heard of Winton’s efforts, and he learned more of the history through Winton and one of the children he saved, Vera Gissing. Winton was moved to act when he skipped a ski trip to meet a friend in Prague in 1938; there he saw the suffering of many and the slowness of the systems offering any hope of freedom. He opened a makeshift office in his hotel room and quickly received overwhelming requests from parents to get their children out of the country. He returned to England to raise funds, advertise for foster families, and procure necessary forms. He found much support, but still found it necessary to forge forms and bribe officers when he returned to Prague. In total, he arranged for 9 trains to carry children out. The first eight trains carried 669 children to new families in England. The ninth train, scheduled to leave on September 1, 1939, was thwarted by the Nazi invasion of Poland. It is believed that just two of the 250 ‘Winton’s children’ meant to be on that train survived. Winton never told his story until the 1980s when his wife chanced upon a box of the children’s information in their attic. She arranged a meeting between Winton and some survivors, many of whom learned of his name and efforts for the first time. Sis rightly calls Winton a hero, as do the children whose lives he saved. Vera’s story is told in the out-of-print Pearls of Childhood, while a documentary “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good” was made about Winton.
THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, cleverly illustrated story of remembrance interweaving Vera’s life with Winton’s efforts and highlighting the stalwart love and care of so many across the world. Though K-3 is the indicated grade level, this feels well-suited for upper elementary children as well.
Biography Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Weatherford, Carole Boston. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-45228-2. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is introduced to a new generation in this vibrant picture book. While this biography is brief, it succeeds in conveying the essence of Franklin’s life. The oil paint illustrations by Frank Morrison draw readers into the story, their richness implying the importance of her family, faith, community and music. The rhyming couplets on each two-page spread succinctly summarize aspects of Franklin’s history, the rhyme scheme unifying the book. Understandably, the abbreviated format does not allow for deeper exploration of her life, and no mention is made of darker events such as her parents’ separation, her mother’s death before Aretha was 10 years old, or the children she bore at age 12 and 14. (The information about her parents is mentioned in the Author’s Note following the story text.) The book accomplishes its intended purpose beautifully, celebrating the life of a revered talent. Hopefully a nearby adult will pair a reading of the book with an introduction to Franklin’s glorious music.
THOUGHTS: A lush, inspiring introduction to a musical icon and activist. With a motion picture biography slated for release in August 2021, this could be a timely purchase.
Picture Book Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD
Novesky, Amy. Girl on a Motorcycle. Viking, 2020. 978-0-593-11629-6. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-5.
In 1973, a young woman in Paris dreams of seeing the world. So she gets on her motorcycle and takes off, becoming the first woman to solo circumnavigate the world on a motorcycle. This is the story of Anne-France Dautheville and her remarkable journey. Beginning in Canada, the 28-year-old white woman rides across North America, Japan, India, on to Turkey, back to Europe, and eventually, home. Anne-France’s magnificent style shines through the poetic text and gorgeous, soft-hued, yet bold illustrations. Her path leads her through myriad cultures and experiences. “I want the world to be beautiful, and it is beautiful. I want people to be good, and they are good.” This book will certainly ignite wonder and curiosity about the world and its people in readers, as well as deep admiration for Anne-France.
THOUGHTS: A beautiful book that does justice to a remarkable woman. In addition, it is a much needed reminder that the world is, indeed, beautiful and good. Highly recommended for elementary libraries.
Picture Book Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD