31 Days, 31 Lists: Day Twenty-Six – 2017 Unique Biographies
In January of 2018 the cover story of SLJ will be one I penned summarizing the current crop of biographies for kids and teens of famous women and how this listing has changed over decades. In the past it was all Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, and Rosa Parks as far as the eye could see. Who rates as the current top biography subjects these days? The results may (or may not) surprise you. Today, I’d like to honor the biographies of folks that don’t end up in a lot of history books and might not be recognizable names on the street. In praise of those authors and illustrators (and editors, doggone it) unafraid to pay homage to the laudable unlauded.
For the record, if you see something missing it’s probably because I considered the subject far too popular. Take Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Pete Seeger as a perfect examples. Publishers are rapidly putting out biographies of those two at such a prodigious rate that it’s rapidly becoming ridiculous. So while I’d love to include Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter, ill. Stacy Innerst or Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich, ill. Adam Gustavson on this list (because they’re both extraordinary) they’re going to have to wait until December 27th to have their day in the sun.
2017 Unique Biographies
Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, ill. Nancy Carpenter
Apparently Markel & Carpenter like a challenge. Proof positive that you can have a famous award named after you and yet remain a fairly obscure individual to the general populace. I wouldn’t have pegged Mr. Newbery as a man desperate for a picture book bio but darned if this team didn’t pull it off. The book is full, fully factual, and manages to give the man’s life a purpose above and beyond his award.
Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard
I included this book on the Fictionalized Nonfiction list because it was written in the first person, but if that kind of detail doesn’t disturb you then you’ll find this a treat. I well remember my elementary school days when we were made to stare at unending lists of old white men in white powdered wigs in music class that were supposedly famous. Not a single one of them had an interesting picture book biography to their name. Would that we could have had this book then.
Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, ill. Rafael Lopez
Today I’ll include some group biographies alongside the individuals. And while Bravo does feature some better known names, it also brings up people who are entirely unknown to large swaths of the United States populace. Tell you what. When Hispanic Heritage Month comes around and the kids need to pick biographical subjects, pull this book off the shelf and have them decide from the biographical poems inside. A stepping stone to further research, perhaps, but whatta stepping stone!
Caroline’s Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully
I was trying to remember which list this already appeared upon. Ah yes! Science & Nature! Well, what else can I tell you about it? That Caroline rose from assistant to her brother to a scientist in her own right is more than a little impressive, considering the times in which she lived. A keen addition to any astronomy selection of titles.
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, ill. Man One
Two words: ramen endpapers. I’m a particular fan of any book that shows someone pursuing one line of work then leaving it to discover their true calling. I think kids should really understand that abandoning one dream doesn’t mean you can’t pursue another. Also, there’s the fact that the first job you get may not dictate what the rest of your life is going to look like. Oh. And the book has a fascinating subject with killer art. That doesn’t hurt either.
Danza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuh
Picture book biographies about dancers make for a fascinating crew. There was that duel bio of Fred Astaire and his sister (Footwork), the one about PegLeg Bates (Knockin’ on Wood), and the Martha Graham story about the creation of Appalachian Spring (Ballet for Martha). Books about Latino/a dancers do not come easily to mind. All the better that Amalia’s story is as interesting as it is.
Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge by Carrie Clickard, ill. Katy Wu
This is very cool. I remember growing up in the 1980s where, at least in Kalamazoo, Michigan, there was a whole lot of Wonder Bread and baloney with Miracle Whip going on. When did I first see a dumpling? I can’t even remember but it wasn’t for a while, that’s for sure. Clickard tells a rather fascinating tale of how one woman took the food she loved and gave it life in a new country. It’s fun. It’s delicious. And if you’re hosting a dumpling party with a lot of kids (where they all make their own dumplings to eat later) this is a perfect tie-in.
Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, ill. Yutaka Houlette
Consider the quiet activists. The ones that sometimes lose. History has so little sympathy for people that lose their court cases, even when it turns out that they are in the right. The atrocity of the Japanese internment camps is a fixed point in the landscape of children’s literature, but how familiar is Fred Korematsu’s name to the man, woman, or child on the street? Don’t be fooled by the cover. Inside this book you’ll find a plethora of killer resources, timelines, tons of original documents, the works. The writing also happens to be gripping. Grab this!
The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon by Frances Poletti & Kristina Yee, ill. Susanna Chapman
Hope you like learning about Bobbi Gibb because you’re going to be seeing a lot more of her soon. In addition to this stellar 2017 picture book bio, in 2018 we’ll be seeing Girl Running by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Micha Archer. I haven’t read that one yet. What I have read is this book from a small press about a woman that didn’t just defy society. She defied her dad. Let’s look at the list of heroes on the list here today. How many of them out-and-out told their dads that they were wrong? Probably some of them, but the Bobbi book is significant because it drills her pursuit of her own dream home. This book is great.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Walmark, ill. Katy Wu
Another Katy Wu! Turns out this illustrator is having a banner year with picture book bios, what with this and Dumpling Dreams. We’re seeing a slow uptick in STEM related biographies of women in the field. A lot of them, I’ll tell you true, are so-so. This one? Just the best. Meet the woman that was a software tester, an inventor, a naval leader, and the person that came up with the term “computer bug” (for a funny reason). And here’s the kicker. She had a sense of humor. I’m trying to collect a list of funny women in history, so Grace Hopper is the latest name for me to mark down. Do be so good as to let me know if you have any others in mind.
Karl, Get Out of the Garden: Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything by Anita Sanchez, ill. Catherine Stock
Again with the tricky subject matter! Considering the fact that this is about words and naming, this book pairs very well indeed with the Noah Webster book (featured down below).
Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing by Kay A. Haring, ill. Robert Neubecker
Ah. This book was a treat. Neubecker turned out to be just the right illustrator for this touching tribute to an artist I knew pretty much nothing about. We have so very few picture book bios about the people we lost in the thick of the AIDS crisis, or gay men in general (though I hear there’s a Harvey Milk bio coming out next year). A kind of fun companion to the recent Basquiat Caldecott winner, actually.
Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, ill. Matt Tavares
Cool. This book reminded me a lot of Queen of the Falls in some ways. Not that I’d consider Sophie Blanchard a daredevil, but rather that it’s about a woman who doesn’t fit the mold of what so many demand in their female biographical subjects (young and slim). Read this book and you sort of fall in love with Sophie, because of her passion.
Marti’s Song for Freedom / Marti y Sus Versos Por La Libertad by Emma Otheguy, ill. Beatriz Vidal
I’ll be honest when I say that I think this cover doesn’t quite convey how good this book really is. The Cuban poet José Martí, who fought for Cuban independence and an end to slavery, gets his due. I think it’s easy for kids to read through American history and learn how our ancestors fought for freedom from slavery and various forms of oppression and remain entirely unaware of other struggles around the world (that continue to this day). A good alternative freedom fighter narrative.
Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, ill. Brett Helquist
If you saw this book trailer then you probably have a clue as to why I like this book so much.
Besides being the ONLY sports rivalry I was even slightly aware of as a kid, I love the degree to which Bildner takes pains to make it clear that this shouldn’t be shunted aside as the “the greatest female rivalry in sports” but the greatest rivalry period.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jeanne Walker Harvey, ill. Dow Phumiruk
I debating including this book since Maya’s star rose significantly this year, and doesn’t look like it’s going to be forgotten anything soon. But I do like what Harvey and Phumiruk did with it in this particular case. Really drills home Lin’s accomplishments during a difficult time.
Meet Cindy Sherman: Artist, Photographer, Chameleon by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
As I’ve told more than one person, this is the book you hand to the kid that loves selfies and worries about what they’re going to do for a living someday. Sometimes what you do as a kid has a huge impact on what you do as an adult. Example A.
Melvin the Mouth: Young Mel Blanc… Before He Was the Man of 1,000 Voices by Katherine Blanc, ill. Jeffrey Ebbeler
It’s a fictionalized biography, no question. But I’ve yet to see another picture book bio in praise of a voiceover cartoon artist. Next up . . . June Foray?
Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote by Margarita Engle, ill. Raul Colon
Just lovely. And tricky. I mean, we know some things about Cervantes but not a ton. I used to get a lot of requests for Don Quixote books for kids when I worked in New York. There were two or three (if you count the Scieszka Robot Zot) but as a fan of context I appreciate any book that gives kids the true 411 on WHY Quixote is important. This helps.
Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century by Sue Macy
Another book that’s kinda sorta a collected biography. Certainly you won’t find the women in this book in any other. They rode fast cars and didn’t apologize for it. Praise.
Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin, ill. Evan Turk
We’re entering a brave new era where it can start to feel strange when we realize that books like Muddy are the first of their kind for young readers. There aren’t any other picture book bios of class and beauty about Muddy Waters. Isn’t that weird? Not anymore.
The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano by Elizabeth Rusch, ill. Marjorie Priceman
Though there’s a lightly fictionalized framing sequence in this story, you can’t argue with the results. I mean, this is the guy who figured out how to make a friggin’ piano. Without him the world of music as we know it would be different. Doesn’t that kind of blow your mind? It does mine.
Nina, Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Briere-Haquet, ill. Bruno Llance
Another one of those subjects where it’s strange to consider the fact that they hadn’t had a picture book bio before. Though, in this case, I feel as if that can’t be entirely true. Surely there was a Nina Simone bio before, right? Right? Help me out here.
Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer, ill. Mircea Catusanu
Oh, Noah. Are you actually on a third list this month? Cheeky fellow. It’s those small glasses. I’m a sucker for them. That and, y’know, the fact that the book is fantastic.
Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Being Disabled by Shane Burcaw, ill. Matt Carr
Is Betsy cheating? Yes she is. Why is Betsy cheating? Because I guess this isn’t technically a biography in the sense that that’s all it does. Shane’s using this book to address a lot of questions kids have about disabilities, using himself as an example. He’s also really funny and (this is key) he respects the child reader and doesn’t talk down to them. Y’know, Shane, if you just wanted to do a whole line of books for kids after this, I think that would be swell. Please.
Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story by Suzanne Slade, ill. Jessica Lanan
The problem with good people that do good work is making their biographies sufficiently interesting. After all, it’s not like we all have such fascinating lives. But Comstock’s tale comes through loud and clear. Conservationists, here’s one for you.
Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden
Bolden didn’t just want to highlight “extraordinary black souls” that didn’t make it onto the usual roster. She went out of her way to find people who really and truly should be better known. And yet, I think it’s true that not a single one of them has a picture book biography elsewhere. Give this a read and then pick your favorite. Mine was the first highly successful African-American magician. Who was he? Gotta read the book.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Eric Velasquez
Naturally I’m biased since I worked for New York Public Library and lived not far from the Schomburg Library during my time in NYC. I have seen the states and the art that Schomburg collected in the back room during an orientation tour in my early days, but I had no idea how important they were. I wish I’d read this book a little sooner. It’s a bio that goes far beyond its subject, taking into account the importance of searching and finding black heroes for black readers.
Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero by Patricia McCormick, ill. Iacopo Bruno
A bio of an animal wouldn’t normally fit on a list such as this, but who am I to be specist? After all, this horse was the only animal ever to officially hold military rank—becoming Sgt. Reckless—and to receive two Purple Hearts. I don’t have any Purple Hearts. Do you have any Purple Hearts? No? Then this really beautiful (Bruno don’t illustrate no junk) book stays.
Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth by Don Tate
Not every picture book biography ends with photographs of the author/illustrator oiled up and muscled, but maybe that will change in the future. At least it happens here, and for a fun time ask Don Tate about all the stuff about Sandow that he couldn’t really include in this book. I love a good strongman bio anyway. Consider pairing this with Meghan McCarthy’s Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas.
Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! by Andrea J. Loney, ill. Keith Mallett
I think I first heard about James VanDerZee on NPR. Don’t ask me which show it was, I can’t remember, but it was a charming piece. The guy was a real character, but one that everyone seemed to like, even his ex-wives. Part of what I like so much about this book is how enterprising the guy was. I may have mentioned with the Chef Roy Choi book that I like that it shows someone having difficulty finding their path. Well, this book’s kind of the opposite. It shows that if you find your talent early, and it’s what you love to do, you can honestly do it for the rest of your life.
Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm by Sue Macy, ill. Matt Collins
When my library was constructing its 101 Great Books of 2017 list we tried very hard to include sports books for kids. We weren’t able to include this book, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t seriously consider it. It’s interesting to see bios of people who walk a line between goal and obsession. I think this one manages it.
Vincent Can’t Sleep by Barb Rosenstock, ill. Mary Grandpre
It’s certainly not the only Vincent Van Gogh book out this year but it may be one of the loveliest. From the folks that brought out The Noisy Paint Box, I’ve always been interested in pic bk bios that focus on visual artists. Will the picture book illustrator try to replicate the style exactly or find some way to get around it? Grandpré finds a solution and it works in the contest of the story. [Note: the only reason I’m not including Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman on this list today is that I consider it YA and we’re just doing children’s books here]
Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity by Sarah Suzuki, ill. Ellen Weinstein
Here is how you sell this book to kids. You ask a group of them to name the most famous artist in the world. They’ll throw out some names and then you can reveal that they’re wrong. Here, in your hand, is her biography. I’m sorry, what? You don’t know her? Well that’s because you’re American. If you lived anywhere else you’d know her name well. Here is her story. Jump on board with the world.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, ill. Vanessa Brantley Newton
I liked it when I first read it at the end of 2017 in galley form. I liked it when it started getting rave reviews from notable review journals. I like it to this day when I look at it now. Great good stuff.
Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can keep checking back:
December 1 – Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Wordless Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – CaldeNotts
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Picture Books
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – Translated Picture Books
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Comics for Kids
December 21 – Older Funny Books
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Fiction Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2017
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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