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.
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 598.2 Birds
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fulton, Kristen. Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family’s Daring Escape from East Germany. Chronicle Books, 2020. 978-1-452-14960-8. $17.99. Grades 2-4.
There are two sides in Germany, the right side and the wrong side. Peter is aware that he was born on the wrong side of Germany, where there are more strict rules and uncomfortable uniforms, and having nice food can be near impossible. While other kids can be watching cartoons on the right side of the wall, Peter is watching news stories and programs. Peter, however, has found the secret his parents have hidden away. With his family, Peter knows that life can be different and will be different for them. Each night, Peter and his family go into the attic to slowly piece together their way to freedom… through a hot air balloon.
THOUGHTS: The illustrations in this book are absolutely stunning. The back of the book contains real information on the hot air balloon the Wetzel family created to help secure their freedom. Older readers will appreciate the story and the history behind it.
325 International MigrationRachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD
Bruchac, Joseph. One Real American: The Life of Ely S. Parker. Abrams, 2020. 978-1-419-74657-4. 242 p. $18.99. Grades 5-10.
Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac chronicles the unique life of Ely Parker in this engaging biography. Parker (given the Senaca name Ha-sa-no-an-da at birth) was born on the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation in western New York in 1828. Educated in “English” schools, he became a translator for his tribal leaders in their negotiations with the United States government while still a teenager. Though he wanted to become a lawyer, racist policies of the time kept him from achieving this goal. Instead, Parker became an engineer, working on canals in various states. During the Civil War, Ely received a commission in the Union Army where he served as a general, working on engineering projects as well as administrative tasks. He was soon promoted to General Grant’s personal secretary. It was in this capacity that Ely Parker found himself present in the room at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant. The official terms of the surrender were written in Parker’s own hand. Following the war, he continued his association with Grant, serving as commissioner of Indian Affairs during Grant’s presidency. Bruchac incorporates numerous quotes from Ely’s extensive writings within the text and numerous photographs accompany the text.
THOUGHTS: Despite his many accomplishments, Ely Parker is little known today. Hopefully this title helps to rectify this situation. Sure to be a hit with biography fans or Civil War researchers, this title deserves a spot on library shelves. Highly Recommended.