The Biographical Explosion: Creating the Creators
Not every children’s book creator deserves a picture book about their life.
Does that sound harsh? Well, it’s Monday. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about.
Without any numbers before me, I get the distinct impression that we’re seeing a marked increase in the range of picture book biographies printed in a given year. In the past it was usually the same ten individuals, presented in ever-so slightly different ways. These days we’ve an abundance of riches. We haven’t hit our peak yet, of course. There are still lots of gaps out there waiting to be filled. Still, we’re getting there.
This year I’ve been dutifully reading through all the picture book bios that cross my plate. And I didn’t raise so much as an eyebrow when I stumbled on the first picture book biography of a children’s book author/illustrator. Nor did I think much about the second. But when I came across a third such book to be published in 2017, I started to wonder what exactly was going on.
Picture book biographies of children’s book creators are not new. Many is the children’s room that will carry Kathleen Krull’s The Boy on Fairfield Street (about Dr. Seuss), Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw by Deborah Kogan Ray, or last year’s really lovely A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Each one of these is a labor of love and they come out infrequently enough to not raise much notice. So to see three in one year? It’s a bit odd. Here’s what I’ve discovered (and please note, this may not be all of them out, just what I’ve noticed):
Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, ill. Nancy Carpenter
Markel and Carpenter weren’t making it easy on themselves with this one. Few Americans have actually read a John Newbery book, though they may vaguely recognize his name from his eponymous medal. Then again, it’s smart to write a picture book biography about a children’s book author (rather than illustrator). If you’re writing about any kind of an artist, your own book’s illustrator is going to have to figure out if they need to replicate the style outright or merely reference it. Not an issue with authors like Mr. Newbery. Called an “effervescent tribute” by Publishers Weekly (who gave it a starred review) Carpenter does reference the books of Newbery’s time period but she does it by giving Balderdash weathered-looking typography. Full confession: I’ve not read this one yet, but I surely do intend to do so soon.
Big Machines: The Story of Virgina Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker and John Rocco
Remember what I said about artists having to make the impossible choice between replicating their subjects’ art and just referencing it? Well, Big Machines is a little from column A and a little from column B. In it, artist John Rocco departs from his usual style. He draws many of Burton’s own beloved characters in the style that she drew them. This book may have some kid appeal for construction lovers or kids that already loved Burton’s work. Hard to say at this point.
Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, ill. Brigette Barrager
It’s late as I write this blog post. I should go to bed but in doing my due diligence on this piece I stumbled into a rabbit hole of Mary Blair images for Disney animated films on Pinterest. Send the rescue party, because I ain’t coming out! Of the bios here today, this one is undoubtedly my favorite. Illustrator Brigette Barrager is also the only person who could have done this job this well. I walked into this book with low expectations and was summarily blown away. Together Guglielmo and Tourville and Barrager have managed to tap into the challenges Blair faced in her life, as well as the colors she employed in her art. If you read only one book about a children’s book creator this year, make it this one.
At the beginning of this point I said that not every children’s book creator deserves a picture book about their life. I think it’s true. There are a lot of really boring creators out there. To create any kind of work of nonfiction you need someone who holds up the high standards of the form. You also need someone who faced some kind of a challenge. Not every pic bk bio shows this.
Note: We have yet to see a picture book about any creators that aren’t white, of course. The Ezra Jack Keats book was about a Jewish guy, so there’s that, but I’ve not seen anything on John Steptoe, Walter Dean Myers, etc.
As for autobiographical works, these tend to either skew older, go the graphic novel route, or do both (El Deafo, Sunny Side Up, Drawing From Memory and the upcoming Silent Days, Silent Dreams, Stiches, etc.). Here’s hoping that if this trend continues, we see a wide range of folks being honored.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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