31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Unique Biographies
Sometimes I make a change to one of these lists and then later forget why I made that change. I merrily looked up what today’s list would be and was a bit puzzled to see that somewhere in the process I changed the name from mere “Biographies” to “Unique Biographies”. Huh. I guess I did that to show that some of the biographies you’ll find on today’s list are of people hitherto uncelebrated while others offer a new take on a familiar name.
Here are the biographies produced for kids in 2019 that struck me as particularly choice. Bet there’s at least one on here you haven’t see before.
2019 Unique Biographies
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow, ill. Steven Salerno
I love Salerno’s art already, but that doesn’t mean I like every book he does. What were the odds that I’d go goofy over the biography of the guy who invented the Crayola crayon? Shouldn’t this book just read like a great big advertisement for Crayola? There’s a bit of that, but this Natascha Biebow lady KNOWS how to pen a really good picture book biography. I loved the little inserted facts in boxes on the sides. I loved how she was able to make the story fun and fabulous without fake quotations. And the Backmatter, oh the Backmatter! Gorgeous full-color photographs of the process (which gave me flashbacks to old Mr. Rogers episodes), a one-page author bio, and the MOST impressive Bibliography I’ve seen in any picture book this year. Can’t believe that this is Beibow’s first nonfiction picture book. Clearly we need to hook her into doing more.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, ill. Rafael López
Has any president ever elicited as much pity for his misery as Lincoln? This year alone we’ve seen this book and Robert Burleigh’s O Captain, My Captain, both of which give good voice to Lincoln’s woes. Engle and López were last seen pairing together on a picture book biography of a single person with that killer Drum Dream Girl. Now they highlight another female Latinx musician, this time from Venezuela. It’s pretty cool, though even cooler is the info at the end that she went on to tour Europe, marry four times, and pretty much kick ass and take names.
Elvis is King! by Jonah Winter, ill. Red Nose Studio
There are some nonfiction topics that look simple on the outside and are amazingly complex inside. Jonah Winter’s no newbie to the nonfiction picture book game. The man’s been in the business for years, and the books vary wildly. When I heard he was doing Elvis, though, I was worried for him. Why? Because in Elvis you have a difficult subject. On the one hand his is a very inspirational story. Poor, shy, Southern boy becomes “The King” through talent. Inspires lots of kids. What’s not to love? But then there’s the whole aspect of how he took his style and songs from the Black community. Does Winter address this? He does! Both in the text of the book and, with a lot more detail, in the back. He says it straight out, “Sam Phillips of Sun Records, absolutely was looking for a white musician to play ‘black music’ for white teenagers… Elvis gave Phillips exactly what he was looking for.” In the meantime, Red Nose Studio might have just done more work on this book than I’ve ever seen before. I was just looking at the image of Elvis’s mama in the hardware store and the crammed shelves are worth a Caldecott alone. It won’t get a Caldecott, of course. Models never do. But it would deserve it just the same.
Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother by Caroline McAlister, ill. Jessica Lanan
Considering all the Tolkien picture book bios I’ve seen, my hopes were not high for this tale of Jack (the actual name of Lewis) and his brother Warnie. Then I opened the book and found myself looking at endpapers that portray what may be the keenest map of Ireland, England, and Scotland I’ve ever seen in a book for kids. Seriously, I just want to make my children look at it so that they have a better sense of their own ancestry. Then I read through the story and discovered that McAlister found the perfect hook for this book. The emotional center rests on the relationship between these brothers. Warnie, and I did not know this, actually typed up all of Jack’s Narnia books because the man only wrote in longhand. It comes by its emotional beats honestly and the backmatter is astounding. An in-depth Author’s Note, a listing of the books (both in the order of publication and the books’ chronology), an intense Illustrator’s Note that accounts for every single detail, and a Bibliography. Oh, and remember how the endpapers on the front were of Great Britain and Ireland? The back endpapers are a map of Narnia. A truly impressive bio that should stand as a standard bearer.
A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toopakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord, ill. Shehzil Malik
Things got a lot easier for Maria in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan when she started dressing like a boy. An inspiring true story about a woman who defied the odds and became a world champion, in spite of the challenges she faced. And try and beat THAT subtitle! I know you won’t. I was highly intrigued by this book. It follows very much in the footsteps of picture book biographies of Malala, but there is SUCH a strong sports focus here. Every year it’s so hard to find any books at all that talk about sports in a fun, original way so thumbs up on the story and the art, but it’s that sports concentration that’s the real lure for me.
I Am Billie Jean King by Brad Meltzer, ill. Christopher Eliopoulos
Withhold your sneers, friends! Withhold your judgement. Yes, this is yet another entry in the Meltzer/Eliopoulos juggernaut that is the “Ordinary People Change the World” series. But let me draw your attention to a couple facts going on here. First off, as far as I can ascertain, this is the first Billie Jean King picture book biography from a major publisher to be released (this came out February 5th while Mara Rockliff’s Billie Jean! How Tennis Star Billie Jean King Changed Women’s Sports wasn’t out until late August). Think about that a little. The first picture book biography of the woman and it was part of a series. How did it take this long? And why is this one so good? Because crazy as it sounds, this is a really smart take on the woman’s life. It might even be my favorite Meltzer has done to date. Crazy, no?
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, ill. Sarah Jacoby
I have a complicated relationship with this book, but it cannot be denied that it’s a beautiful example of how to write a biography. Brown is presented here as a kind of Amélie of children’s literature. She sells a book and then fills her house with a whole cart’s worth of flowers. She lives on a cliff, is inventive with picture books, has tea on library steps, dies doing the can-can, what’s not to love? And yes, Anne Carroll Moore is set up as the child-shushing, bun-in-the-hair, killjoy librarian. A stereotype with an extra added creepy wooden doll for a twist. I wrote about the complicated legacy of ACM here this year, but (as I say there) even though she’s the baddie there’s much to parse in this bio and it is well done. A complex but never dull book.
It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear, ill. Julie Morstad
Defying the odds wasn’t just something Gyo Fujikawa did once in a while. This children’s book artist did it her whole life. A stunning encapsulation of the Japanese-American woman who fought racism, sexism, and more through the power of her art. Don’t mind me. I’m just going to raid the children’s room for every book by Gyo Fujikawa now that I know who she was and what she accomplished in her life. It presents an artist (who also worked for Disney) in the context of her day. But while some picture book biographies have difficulty broadening their focus away from their subjects’ day-to-day lives, through Gyo’s story we learn about the Japanese internment camps (that image of her mom burning her possessions is amazing), WWII prejudice against Asian-Americans, sexism, and even racism in the publishing industry. Maclear uses Gyo’s life as a template for the wider world, but never loses focus. The premise is that this person is extraordinary, and she really and truly is.
Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines by Sarah Aronson, ill. Robert Neubecker
Two years ago my family bought a Rube Goldberg calendar and my daughter hasn’t stopped talking about it since. I was so pleased with the look, the feel, and the telling of this tale. I adored the endpapers! And yeah, we’re going to get complaints about the gun, but I don’t care, it made me laugh out loud. Beautifully rendered and a wonderful encapsulation. Plus, Neubecker clearly put his heart and soul into the art.
Let ‘er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, ill. Gordon C. James
Who can resist Gordon C. James’ thick, vibrant paints? This is a far cry from his debut multiple award-winning picture book Crown, but in a good way. Nelson focuses on a honest-to-goodness cowboy. Specifically, one particular Saddle Bronc Championship, which is a nice way of focusing his story. Also, check out that first page for the right way to begin a picture book biography. Full-page, black and white, engaging, enticing, exciting.
Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch, ill. Teresa Martínez
What do you do when you can see a looming disaster that could wipe out all life on earth and nobody will listen to you? A stellar bio of Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina, who discovered the dangers of CFCs. This is the book that dropped David Diaz as its illustrator when the #MeToo stuff about him broke. And you know what? I think I like the art by Martínez more than the art by Diaz. One reason might be the fact that Diaz is all about otherworldly looks and Martínez is all about emotion. You actually like Mario quite a lot in this version. You feel for the guy. I just felt more tied into the material and his struggles to get the world to listen to something they didn’t want to hear. It’s also realistic while remaining hopeful. Mario says that now he’s looking to warn the world about global warming, and you are left hoping that maybe he’ll succeed. There is some fake dialogue in the front but the author addresses this, saying it came straight from interviews from Mario himself, so I think that covers her bases. Worthy, necessary stuff.
Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank’s Diary by Meeg Pincus, ill. Jordi Solano
There have been a lot of debates out there about the appropriate ways to tell Anne’s story. The picture books on the subject that get my goat are the ones that focus on the tree out her window, or her cat, or God knows what all. That there hasn’t really been a book for kids to focus on Miep seems like a huge lost opportunity. And best of all, Pincus plays by the rules. Every direct quote comes from her book, speeches, or interviews. It’s a real pity that Sleeping Bear Press didn’t opt to include a Bibliography but at least there’s an Author’s Note and Timeline of Miep’s Life. It’s nicely done. Probably one of the few titles to actually present Frank’s life for younger readers well.
Monument Maker: Daniel Chester French and the Lincoln Memorial by Linda Booth Sweeney, ill. Shawn Fields
“A sculptor is nine-tenths mechanic, and one-tenth poet.” – Daniel Chester French. This book has to fight an uphill battle. First off, it’s almost entirely done in black and white. Second, the subject matter sounds boring. Oh goody. Another book about making a sculpture. Haven’t we had enough Statue of Liberty/Mount Rushmore books to last us a good long while? And then, at the beginning, I thought I was reading fake dialogue so I was out. But then, as I made my way through the book I was stunned by the elasticity of the writing, the imagination in the art, and the fact that almost every single piece of dialogue (save one at the beginning and I can let it slide) is accounted for with meticulous notes in the back. The story turns out to be thrilling! The backmatter is hugely informative and downright interesting. Add in the fact that Sweeney mentions multiple times the contributions of black laborers (and the fact that they were not allowed to attend the dedication in a proper location making it “a stain on that day”) and ties the memorial to three pivotal points in history (Marian Anderson, MLK, and Obama). This is a jaw-dropper of a book. Give it a look.
Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington by Michelle Markel, ill. Amanda Hall
Markel and Hall paired previously on a picture book biography of Henri Rousseau that I adored (The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau), so I was predisposed to like this one. It most certainly doesn’t disappoint. First off, I didn’t even know there was a female surrealist painter. After reading this book I immediately set off to find out more about her. Second, Markel plays fair with the text and Hall does a marvelous job of invoking Carrington’s art without copying it, which is a difficult trick. It’d call this one a stellar bio of a little known name.
Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson, ill. Rebecca Huang
Sometimes I’ll say that I don’t enjoy picture book biographies where you follow the main character from birth through adulthood, but honestly what I mean by that is that I don’t enjoy poorly written bios of that sort. When you have someone like Teresa Robeson at the wheel, it’s all good. Her encapsulation of the life of Wu Chien Shiung is particularly well done. She imbues the character with personality and verve, without relying on any fake dialogue or weird trips into her mind. Her life is kind of amazing, as she doggedly pursues her career in a time when Asian women in America were facing all kinds of bias. I just liked it. It’s just a good, interesting, fun bio. Case closed.
Queer Heroes: Meet 52 LGBTQ Heroes From Past & Present by Arabelle Sicardi, ill. Sarah Tanat-Jones
So I’ll be the first to admit that I am bored to death of group biographies by this point. I mean, they’re useful, sure, but after a while they get so samey-samey. The format is ALWAYS the same and how much verve and personality can you pack into those tiny descriptions about each person? But this book? This one feels different to me. Maybe it’s the subject matter (it’s crazy but I think this is the first LGBTQIA+ collective biography for kids out there) or maybe it’s the selection. I was first surprised when I ran into the first two-page spread of Freddie Mercury and Sappho. Sappho! Then you turn the page and there’s Audre Lorde and Manvendra Singh Gohil who is heir to the Maharaja of Rajpipla in Gujarat and is the world’s first openly gay prince. Right about then, I was sold. The write-ups are great, though they sometimes forget to mention why a person is included. Josephine Baker? It never explains. Still, this is definitely worth considering.
Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, ill. Tonya Engel
Small and vulnerable, young Maya moved from place to place with her brother Bailey, enduring abuse and ultimately rising above it all to become a national treasure. Sumptuous art and brave writing tell her story with honesty and love. It isn’t enough for the subject of a book to be interesting or even to have had an interesting life. In every picture book biography the story needs a hook. Something you can grab onto, that takes that person and that life and makes it more than just a rote set of facts. You have to be emotionally engaged with the material. Now I had to wonder, walking into a biography of Maya Angelou, how the author was going to handle the sexual abuse. Would she shy away from it or face it head on? I think the balance found here is extraordinary. It’s presented in such a way where it’s appropriate for younger kids, but for those who are older there’s backmatter that contains websites “for those who may be affected or wish to support someone affected by sexual violence.” There’s also an impressive Bibliography and (my favorite) where all the quotation sources come from. Oh. And did I mention that the art is AMAZING? Who is this Tonya Engel and how can we see more of her work?
This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
Holy moly, that’s a good book! I admit a tiny bit of skepticism when I saw how long it was. Then, like a ten-year-old, I got a thrill when I realized it was in verse. But a verse nonfiction memoir? How was that going to work? Brilliantly, as it happens. Pairing Boyce and Levy together completely works. This is such a creative solution to the old “fake quotations” problem. It’s filled with quotes from named sources, like newspapers and interviews, to say nothing of the impressive backmatter. Then you actually get moments where the verse turns seamlessly into poetry, so there are sonnets, ballads, villanelles, pantoums, haikus, and more. Oh. And the story really grips you. Sucks you right in. Deserving of all its praise.
Thurgood by Jonah Winter, ill. Bryan Collier
Can one person change the law of the land? Thurgood Marshall could. Just a normal kid from a middle class family, Thurgood was the kind of guy who saw injustice and worked to stamp it out. Now his life comes to vibrant life thanks to the expert collage art of Bryan Collier. As ever, when it comes to Jonah Winter, the man is good at writing bios. Collier’s style isn’t one that I always naturally adhere to, but I like most of what he’s done here. I would, however, like to get a lot more information on how, exactly, 6-year-old Marshall convinced his parents to legally change his name to “Thurgood”. That is one forward thinking kid!
Two Brothers, Four Hands: The Artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, ill. Hadley Hooper
One was a dedicated, quiet artist determined to make his mark on the world. The other, a vagabond no-goodnik, dedicated to his brother. Together, the Giacometti brothers would revolutionize the art world, but first they had to figure out their own individual styles. Greenberg and Jordan have been working on these kinds of unusual picture book biographies for years. This one is deep and rich, but at its heart it’s about the connection between two brothers who are also artists. One of the things I liked the most about it was how well it shows how no artist knows what they want to do or whom they want to be when they’re starting out. And sometimes it can take decades. A strangely supportive work of encouragement for young artists everywhere. Oh, and the art is keen.
The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Hero by Joan DiCicco, ill. Ebony Glenn
The son of freed slaves, witness the life of a man who saved lives with his inventions and proved that when it came to obstacles you can always find a way to get around, over, or through them. This is one of those cases where it’s difficult to separate my delight at discovering this historical hero from the presentation of his life. That said, I really found the text and the images of this book to be hugely compelling. DiCicco walks this nice balance between Garrett’s hardships and the sheer coolness of his solutions to problems. You get the distinct impression that the man invented a lot more than is mentioned here. Might be worth checking out that Bibliography. Meanwhile, Glenn’s art is realistic without being (how can I put this?) boring. Sorry, but realistic art is too often dull in picture book bios. This serves the story well and keeps your interest from start to finish. Yep. I’m a fan.
What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett, ill. Diana Sudyka
In the 1840s Maria Mitchell was taught to “sweep the sky” using her father’s telescope. Being the first to spot a comet wasn’t in the plan. A marvelously wrought tale, gorgeously rendered, of an early woman scientist. There are a lot of things I like about this book, actually. I like that it’s nonfiction and fun but that the dialogue, when it appears, is in the art and not the text (and sounds like it’s real anyway, but there you go). I like that this is, without a doubt, the best art I’ve seen from Sudyka to date (and she’s an Evanston local, so woohoo!). And though this is entirely personal, I like that the heroine is a Quaker. Not a lot of Quaker bios out there for kids. Oh! And did I mention that Barrett is a REALLY good writer? See, this is what I mean when I’m talking about picture book biographies that are above average. Beautifully rendered with excellent writing.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Booklists
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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