Everything Old Is New Again: Fantastic Picture Book Bios You May Have Forgotten
Folks, I’ve been in this game a long time. Not as long as some, but if you take into account my blogging years I’m a verifiable crone. I started back in 2003 and it’s been nothing but typing ever since. Now this year, in 2018, I’ve been very encouraged. A lot of the picture book biographies I’ve seen have done a particularly good job of adhering to facts and not throwing faux dialogue in willy-nilly whenever it suits the story (though there are always exceptions). Many of us have said that we are currently in a Golden Age of Children’s Nonfiction, and I think that’s true. However, lest we forget, there have been magnificent picture book biographies of different figures out for years. Today, I honor the books that came before. The ones that I reviewed at the time of their publications and that could easily be forgotten. Some are out of print. Some are only available in paperback. All of them are amazing. And I guarantee there’s at least one on this list that you’ve missed along the way:
The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (2009)
Chris Barton (ill. Tony Persiani)
These days we’ve grown accustomed to picture book biographies of subjects that have never been featured in adult texts. But back in 2009 when Barton debuted with this beauty, the idea of doing original research on a hitherto unsung hero was far less common. I remember hearing Chris talk about all the work that went into this book, from finding a self-published memoir to interviewing members of the family and discovering, maybe for the very first time, that writing nonfiction for children is shockingly hard. Love this one. It still stands out.
Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina (2011)
Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (ill. Raul Colon).
Part of what I liked so much about Alicia’s story was that this was a life that was complicated to its core. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Part of the reason I liked Alicia Alonso as much as I did had to do with these gray areas. First off, it was one of the few books to speak about Dictator Batista. Next, here you have a woman who chose to stay in Cuba. As the Author’s Note explains, “Alicia had to chose between living in the United States and living in Cuba. She chose Cuba. Exiled Cubans called her decision despicable. They had fled Cuba because of Castro’s repressive dictatorship, and they considered it an insult to their forced exile to have their diva return to Cuba.” That’s a very good explanation of the reasons why Alicia faced signs in America when she performed reading, “ALICIA ALONSO / WHY DO YOU FIND KILLINGS BY CASTRO / MORE ACCEPTABLE THAN KILLINGS BY BATISTA?” At the same time, the Cuban government funded the ballet under Castro and refused to under Batista. A good children’s book doesn’t have to go into minute details regarding political squabbles. It just has to offer facts and human decisions. Bernier-Grand walks that tightrope better than many.”
Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton (2008)
I was just over the moon in love wit this book when it came out. What I wouldn’t give for another Catherine Brighton picture book, no matter what the form. Not an hour ago I was trying to describe the plot of Matt Phelan’s comic Bluffton to my six-year-old and it occurred to me that I need to track down this book again. It wasn’t exactly heavy on the backmatter but for a fun tale about a fascinating figure, it hits the sweet spot.
Mermaid Queen:The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History! (2009)
Shana Corey (ill. Edwin Fotheringham)
I think this might have been the first book that introduced me to Mr. Fotheringham (he’d done some before, but this was the first one I reviewed). For a while there Ms. Corey was doing a fair number of books about the history of women’s rights through the lens of their clothing. I loved what she and Fotheringham did with Ms. Kellerman’s life.
Dark Fiddler: The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini (2008)
Aaron Frisch (ill. Gary Kelley)
The other day I was working out on my elliptical runner when a fiddled song popped up on my Spotify shuffle playlist. Listening to the music I was reminded of Paganini, the man so talented with his fiddle that he was accused of connections with the devil. Just look at that cover to. The insides are just as gorgeous as the package. If they republished this book with a little more backmatter, I just know it would sell like hotcakes.
Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey (2012)
Gary Golio (ill. Rudy Gutierrez)
So far Rudy Gutierrez has eluded proper praise. To my mind, there should have at least been some minimal Caldecott Award buzz around this book when it was released. It remains one of the most beautiful biographies of a controversial character to date.
Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas (2007)
In just seven days, I can make you a man! McCarthy’s clever little bio didn’t just give you the inside scoop on Atlas. In the back it also had a slew of suggested fitness activities as well. Yay, back mater! Yay, Mr. Atlas!
Sue Macy (ill. Matt Collins)
Okay, sure, it wasn’t that long ago that the book came out, but I honestly think it could have gotten more attention. Women slam-banging one another while skating on an infinite loop? No wonder this stuff did so well on TV.
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (2012)
Michelle Markel (ill. Amanda Hall)
This book effectively tapped into two of my favorite topics. 1. You can pursue creativity at any stage in your life. 2. There’s a lot to be said for bull-headed self-assurance. Not always. Just sometimes.
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table (2013)
Jacqueline Briggs Martin (ill. Eric-Shabazz Larkin)
Because life’s too short not to remember, and then keep remembering, folks as cool as Will.
Tony Medina (ill. Jesse Joshua Watson)
Winner of the Best Cover of This Post award. Just take that one in for a while. Stellar.
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (2008)
Marc Tyler Nobleman (ill. Ross MacDonald)
Have no fear. Marc has no intention of ever allowing anyone to ever forget about this book. I rather loved it at the time. It pairs oddly well with THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY.
Shake, Rattle and Turn That Noise Down: How Elvis Shook of Music, Me, and Mom (2010)
Mark Alan Stamaty
Autobiographical picture books are almost unheard of, but Stamaty’s book aimed to change all of that. It was basically a graphic memoir, only done in a picture book format. I’m hard pressed to find many out there to compare this to. Where are you today, Mark? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson (2007)
Sue Stauffacher (ill. Greg Couch)
To this day I honest-to-goodness believe that this book came out before its time. How else to explain how it so wholly and completely fell under the radar. The art from Couch was top notch and Stauffacher knew that a story about a black girl who isn’t a perfect little saint was mildly radical. If you’re unfamiliar with this story, Althea was this kid with too much energy, that was capable of putting it in all the wrong places. Fortunately she was trained in soccer and went on to use that energy to its best advantage. Geez, I loved this book. Find it again if you can.
Chris Van Allsburg
I was once told that not a single Chris Van Allsburg book has ever gone out of print. I’m not sure if that statement stands up today, but if it does then it will surprise no one to hear that this bio (his only one) is still going strong. What I loved about it, back in the day, was that it was celebrating an older woman who just happened to be a daredevil. It’s also terrifying. Truly terrifying.
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (2009)
Jonah Winter (ill. Andre Carrilho)
The first in the “You Never Heard of” series and maybe my favorite to date. I’m still waiting for another Carrilho children’s book, by the way. Come back, man! Come back!
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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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