Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Review of The Oldest Student, by Rita Lorraine Hubbard & Oge Mora

Friday, April 30th, 2021

The Oldest Student

How Mary Walker Learned to Read

by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
illustrated by Oge Mora

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 23, 2020, from a library book

I know a book is worth reviewing when I can’t resist telling my coworkers about it. This is an amazing true story, beautifully told in a picture book.

Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848. Of course slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read. She was freed when she was fifteen years old, but there was still hard work in her life. Now she was too busy to learn to read. She was given a Bible and planned to learn to read some day, but at the time she had work to do.

This picture book shows her busy life bringing up children, working in people’s homes, and raising money for her church. She’d bring her Bible to church, but she still couldn’t read it.

Mary had her three sons to read to her. But they died before she did. Her eldest son died when he was ninety-four, and Mary was alone at 114 years old.

So Mary learned to read.

She went to a class in her building, and at 116 years old received a certificate that she could read. The US Department of Education heard about her and declared her the nation’s oldest student.

Mary felt complete. She still missed her sons, but whenever she was lonely, she read from her Bible or looked out her window and read the words in the street below.

From then on, Chattanoogans honored Mary’s achievement with yearly birthday parties. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent well wishes on Mary’s 118th birthday, and in 1969, President Richard Nixon did the same. Mary was now 121 years old.

I love the way the book finishes, with an illustration of a friendly crowd clustered around Mary:

Each year, before her birthday celebration came to an end, someone would whisper, “Let’s listen to Miss Mary.”

The shuffling and movement would fade away until not a sound was heard.

Then Mary would stand on her old, old legs, clear her old, old throat, and read from her Bible or her schoolbook in a voice that was clear and strong.

When she finished, she would gently close her book and say,

“You’re never too old to learn.”

The endpapers show photos of Mary after she’d learned to read. The whole book is full of the wonderful Oge Mora’s joyful cut-paper illustrations. I’m amazed at how she conveys so much personality with simple shapes.

This book is a delight. There’s even a picture of Mary’s first airplane ride. A whole lot changed during her lifetime! And the message is clear: You’re never too old to learn.

ritahubbard.com
ogemora.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Girl on a Motorcycle, by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Tuesday, February 9th, 2021

Girl on a Motorcycle

by Amy Novesky
illustrated by Julie Morstad

Viking, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written October 6, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Girl on a Motorcycle is a beautifully illustrated picture book telling the true story of Anne-France Dautheville, a French girl who rode a motorcycle around the world in 1973.

Julie Morstad’s illustrations have a retro feel, but they also give a feeling of adventure, wonder, and beauty. The girl on the motorcycle is small, but she’s determined.

The book shows the many different places she traveled and the many different people she met along the way. It tells about times when she needed help from strangers and other times when she simply enjoyed the company of strangers.

And it captures the feeling of seeing amazing things and collecting amazing experiences.

The text part (before the Author’s Note) closes with a quote from Anne-France:

The world is beautiful. The world is good.

When she closes her eyes, the girl can still hear the road.
Elsewhere is just a little bit farther.

This book leaves you ready to listen to the call of the road. I wonder if any children reading it will end up as world travelers.

penguin.com/kids

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, by Amy Alznauer, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan

by Amy Alznauer
illustrated by Daniel Miyares

Candlewick Press, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written July 11, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Nonfiction Picture Books

The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity is a longer-than-usual picture book biography of the mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan. The book focuses on his growing-up years with his constant thinking about mathematical ideas and passion for it that couldn’t be contained.

Here’s how the author talks about the young Ramanujan’s thoughts:

What else is small? Ramanujan wondered. He remembered the legend of the single egg that cracked open to reveal the entire universe. He thought about a mango.

A mango is like an egg. It is just one thing. But if I chop it in two, then chop the half in two, and keep on chopping, I get ore and more bits, on and on, endlessly, to an infinity I could never reach. Yet when I put them back together, I still have just one mango.

He loved this idea, small and big, each inside the other. If he could crack the number 1 open and find infinity, what secrets would he discover inside other numbers? It felt like he was setting out on a grand chase.

Numbers were everywhere. In the squares of light pricking his thatched roof. In the gods dancing on the temple tower. In the clouds that formed and re-formed in the sky. Every day he wrote numbers in the sand, on his slate, on slips of paper, his slender fingers flying, each number a new catch.

The book tells about Ramanujan’s life in India before he finally got an answer from the mathematician G. H. Hardy and was invited to England. It captures his obsession with numbers and his difficulty in doing other things. His parents tried him in a new school every year, because he didn’t fit into the molds they wanted. Eventually he failed college because all he would think about was math.

I love that the author is also a mathematician, and I think she does a great job expressing Ramanujan’s genius, overflowing ideas, and desire to be heard. The artist paints wonderful illustrations to go with the text, showing us an imaginative boy dreaming about numbers and living in a land with lots of sunshine.

The book ends as Ramanujan travels to England:

As he rocked on the steamer and gazed up at the great night sky, so full of stars that it looked like a glittering infinity, he never could have guessed that someday scientists would use his ideas to help explore that sky and that his work would change the course of mathematics forever. One hundred years later, people would still search his notebooks in wonderment, trying to discover what he was thinking.

candlewick.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Almost American Girl, by Robin Ha

Saturday, January 23rd, 2021

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2020. 233 pages.
Review written May 13, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

The graphic format is so wonderful for a memoir about dealing with middle school and high school under exceptionally trying circumstances. I hope this will enjoy the popularity of similar books such as Smile, Best Friends, and New Kid.

When Chuna Ha’s mother brought her to America one summer, Chuna thought they were just taking a vacation. They went to Alabama, a place Chuna had never heard of, and stayed with a “friend” of her mother. At the end of the “vacation,” her mother said she was getting married and they were in America to stay.

Chuna took the American name of Robin, but it was hard to pronounce. She didn’t speak English very well and had a lot of trouble in middle school in Alabama. We see Robin having trouble getting along with her step family, bullies teasing her cruelly at school, and how hard it is to make friends when you don’t speak the same language. She finally meets kids she connects with when her mother finds a comics class at a comics store.

She and her mother move to Virginia when she’s ready to start high school, and then there’s an entire classroom full of English Language Learners, so she no longer feels so out of place, and doesn’t stand out. At the end of the book, Robin visits her hometown in Korea and sees her old friends and learns that not only is she different from them now, she has different hopes and dreams for her future.

This graphic-format memoir brings you into Robin’s experiences with all its struggles and triumphs.

banchancomic.tumblr.com
epicreads.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Fabled Life of Aesop, by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

The Fabled Life of Aesop

by Ian Lendler
illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 64 pages.
Review written March 24, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-outs:
#2 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

This is a collection of Aesop’s fables that stands out for two important reasons.

The first outstanding thing about it is the stunning illustrations by Caldecott-Honor-winning artist Pamela Zagarenski. Every page of this book is beautiful to look at. The illustrations feel otherworldly, adding to the universal nature of the fables.

The second outstanding feature is that the author presents the life of Aesop before and after presenting most of the fables. I knew, I think, that Aesop had been a slave, but very little else. Ian Lendler tells about his different owners and how he won his freedom with his wisdom.

He also explains why fables were important for slaves – a way to tell the truth indirectly and thus not get into trouble. He imagines situations for Aesop to tell several of his fables in the story of his life, thus avoiding trouble while sharing wisdom. I like that the author clearly shows – with one of Aesop’s fables – that freedom was the greatest treasure he could win.

There’s an author’s note at the back that explains what we know and don’t know about Aesop. But that the idea of a slave who won his freedom with his wisdom was attached to the fables for more than 2,000 years.

This book gave me a whole new appreciation for these fables that I’ve heard over and over again. Children being introduced to them this way will find them magical.

ianlendler.com
pzagarenski.com
hmhbooks.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of When Stars Are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

When Stars Are Scattered

by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

color by Iman Geddy

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020. 264 pages.
Review written August 4, 2020, from a library book
Audiobook from Listening Library, 2020, narrated by a full cast. 3 hours, 42 minutes.
Library eaudiobook reviewed December 30, 2020
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#1 General Children’s Nonfiction

In When Stars Are Scattered, award-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson took the story of a boy who grew up in a refugee camp and put it in graphic memoir format.

Omar Mohamed’s first memories are in a refugee camp. He doesn’t like to remember the day in Somalia that put him there, when his father was killed and his mother told him to take his little brother and go to the neighbor’s house and she would find him. The neighbors helped, but they ran to a refugee camp in Kenya. Years later the boys are bigger and that’s the only home they’ve known.

Omar’s little brother Hassan doesn’t say anything except one word, “Hooyo,” and he’s had seizures in the past. Omar feels responsible for him. They have a foster mother assigned to them by the UN, but Omar is afraid to leave his brother long enough to go to school.

This book takes us through his choice to go to school, to trust other people to look after Hassan, and try to make a life there and apply for resettlement. The whole resettlement process takes years, and only a few are even chosen to interview, and they have no information about the status of their case.

The graphic memoir format makes this story easy to follow, but it’s not an easy story. It moved me to tears in spots. But even the fact that Omar is telling his story gives you the hint that there will be a happy ending, and indeed there is, at least for Omar. He now lives in the United States and has founded an organization that helps students living in refugee camps.

But this is a story about kids and for kids. The characters are children and talk and act like children. It’s very hard to imagine being in that situation, but the authors get across what it would be like for children who know nothing else.

We actually have a large local population of families from Somalia. When the pandemic is over and I see them in the library again, I hope they will find this book. But I also hope that it will be widely read by many who have never experienced anything remotely like this, because it’s hard to imagine reading this story and not being filled with compassion.

Additional thoughts on the audiobook:

In December, I listened to the audiobook version of this book. Normally, I’d never listen to the audiobook form of a graphic novel, but both versions were nominated to be Capitol Choices selections. As soon as I began listening, I quickly understood why. This is an amazing audiobook production, with different people voicing different characters, and lots of different sound effects to set the mood (crickets at night, children’s voices in school, the sound of a broom when he was cleaning his tent, and more).

Listening to the book, I could hear authentic accents and even the voice of adult Omar at the end. It pulled me into the story, and if I hadn’t already seen the wonderful illustrations, I wouldn’t have even missed them. Who would have thought that such a visual medium as a graphic novel would work so well as an audiobook? Perhaps it helps that they used a full cast, since that’s similar to using speech bubbles in a graphic novel — you don’t have to talk about which character is speaking — you see (or hear) that someone new is talking.

I’ve decided the ultimate experience of this book would be to listen to it while looking at the art of the graphic novel version. Both are wonderful on their own. I’m glad I didn’t miss out on either one.

refugeestrong.org
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Eye That Never Sleeps, by Marissa Moss, illustrations by Jeremy Holmes

Thursday, September 3rd, 2020

The Eye That Never Sleeps

How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln

by Marissa Moss
illustrations by Jeremy Holmes

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2018. 48 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 7, 2018, from a library book
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#7 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

This picture book biography is a fun and entertaining – while factual – story of how the detective Allan Pinkerton became a detective and ended up saving President Lincoln and founding the Secret Service.

The illustrator gave the pages the look of the time but with contemporary colors. Pinkerton fled Scotland on his wedding day, and this story is told with the pictures as well as the text. The Pinkerton agency eventually became known as “the eye that never sleeps,” and Pinkerton’s eyes – and the direction of his vision – are highlighted in orange throughout the book.

The complete package of words and pictures here keeps you turning pages, with the illustrations including panels that almost give the book a graphic novel feel.

Pinkerton did keep Lincoln safe after uncovering a plot to assassinate him when he was first elected. They used a decoy and sent him to Washington by a different route. The book also includes how Pinkerton became a detective and how he was the reason the term “private eye” was coined.

A fun and suspenseful story that’s also true.

abramsyoungreaders.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Imagine, by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

Imagine

by Juan Felipe Herrera
illustrated by Lauren Castillo

Candlewick Press, 2018. 32 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 2, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

I confess – when I first read this book at the library, I looked through it hastily and wasn’t impressed. But when the publisher sent it to my house, I gave it another look, knowing what it was, took my time, and this time was touched by its beauty.

This picture book is an illustrated poem – an autobiographical poem addressed to the reader and intended to inspire.

It’s short – I admit that it’s easy to dismiss if you don’t take your time with it and stop to look at each picture.

Juan Felipe Herrera was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2015 to 2017. This poem shows us his humble beginnings, and his journey to become a poet.

Each stanza ends with the word “imagine” and covers a double-page spread. Here are the first few stanzas:

If I picked chamomile flowers
as a child
in the windy fields and whispered
to their fuzzy faces,

imagine

If I let tadpoles
swim across my hands
in the wavy creek,

imagine

If I jumped up high
into my papi’s army truck
and left our village of farmworkers
and waved adios
to my amiguitos,

imagine

You see the boy gradually getting bigger in the pictures. The poetry also talks about his experiences:

If I moved
to the winding city
of tall, bending buildings
and skipped
to a new concrete school
I had never seen,

imagine

If I opened
my classroom’s wooden door
not knowing how to read
or
speak in English,

imagine

It takes him through writing stories and poetry, singing in front of people, and finally reading out of his own poetry book in front of the Library of Congress as the Poet Laureate of the United States of America.

And then, finally, the book finishes all the sentences:

imagine what you could do.

Inspiring and beautiful – and there’s also a treat under the paper cover! (The stars of the cover are embossed in gold foil on the book with the title.)

candlewick.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a a book sent by the publisher.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Hey, Kiddo, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

Hey, Kiddo

How I Lost My Mother, Found my Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction

by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Graphix (Scholastic), 2018. 312 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 26, 2018, from an Advance Reader Copy.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#5 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

Here’s a graphic novel memoir by a bestselling graphic novelist, so it’s sure to be popular. This one, though, isn’t sweetness and light, and the issues addressed go a lot deeper than friends and cliques. We do have a happy ending – Jarrett Krosoczka has achieved success with his art. The book is marketed for 12 and up, so it’s for a somewhat older audience than those who love Lunch Lady.

Jarrett tells about his life. His mother was a heroin addict, and he didn’t know his father. His mother’s parents raised him, and they had their own quirks, being older than his friends’ parents.

Jarrett explains his family history. His grandparents had five kids, and he wasn’t a whole lot younger than his youngest aunt. He lived with his mother the first years of his life, but she couldn’t stay off heroin and out of trouble, so eventually he was permanently with his grandparents.

This book takes Jarrett through elementary school and high school, all the way up to applying to art school for college. He credits the teachers and friends who helped him along the way, as well as offering many tributes to his grandparents, without hiding their prickliness and quirks. His persistence, despite coming from an unconventional family, ended up paying off, and notes at the back bring us to the present.

This book speaks from the heart about a kid growing up in a family with challenges, but a lot of love. He learned to grapple with that, push boundaries, uncover truth, and above all use his art to throw light on shadows.

scholastic.com/graphix

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Source: This review is based on a book sent by the publisher.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of House of Dreams, by Liz Rosenberg

Friday, June 12th, 2020

House of Dreams

The Life of L. M. Montgomery

by Liz Rosenberg
illustrated by Julie Morstad

Candlewick Press, 2018. 339 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed July 7, 2018, from a copy sent from the publisher.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

I am an avid L. M. Montgomery fan. I have read all of her published journals. I’ve read all her novels. Usually when I read a biography, I think how much nicer it was to read about these things in L. M. Montgomery’s own words. But I didn’t feel that way about House of Dreams.

In the first place, Liz Rosenberg did a great job of giving us the high points of L. M. Montgomery’s life. She speaks frankly of bipolar disorder and that there was no real treatment for it in her time. When Maud had a long low period, we don’t have to wade through the despairing journal entries, but we get a summary.

I thought I knew the whole story. But this book was the first I heard a crucial fact about Maud’s passionate love affair with Herman Leard – he was publicly courting another woman. It always made me crazy in her journals to read all the reasons why he wasn’t actually suited to her for marriage. I had no idea that she was protecting herself from jealousy. (I did know that she herself was engaged at that time to Edwin Simpson.)

I also knew that her life ended very unhappily and that she was very disappointed in her oldest son Chester. This book puts perspective on that and gives more details than Maud did about what Chester had done. (It’s this part that makes the book more for young adults than for children.) And I did not know that her death was probably a suicide, though I did know that she ended her days feeling despairing.

Her life ended unhappily, but there was so much inspiring about her life. Her persistent work at writing and her eventual success of climbing “the Alpine path” is always an uplifting story to hear. This quiet imaginative girl from Prince Edward Island achieved fame and wealth and a lasting legacy. The illustrations by Julie Morstad are perfect and make the book a treasure. (I’d love to see Julie Morstad illustrate all of L. M. Montgomery’s novels!)

I’m not going to keep all of the books that publishers have sent me to consider for the Newbery – but this one is going right into my collection of books by and about L. M. Montgomery. It’s a lovely book about a fascinating and inspiring life. I do recommend it to all my friends, teen and up, who love the Anne and Emily books.

candlewick.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?