Review of What Linnaeus Saw, by Karen Magnuson Beil

What Linnaeus Saw

A Scientist’s Quest to Name Every Living Thing

by Karen Magnuson Beil

Norton Young Readers, 2019. 256 pages.
Review written January 14, 2020, from a library book.

This book is a middle school and up biography of Carl Linnaeus, who founded the science of taxonomy by coming up with a system to classify and name all creatures on earth. He even thought at the time that he could complete this task. But in his attempt, he furthered scientific progress tremendously by giving scientists all over the world a way to know they were talking about the same animals.

Carl Linnaeus was born in 1707 in Sweden. His parents badly wanted him to be a pastor, but he wasn’t suited for that at all. He headed into medicine, much to their disappointment – being a medical doctor wasn’t a respected profession at that time. But it was a profession suited for someone obsessed with botany, the study of plants. At those times, doctors made their own medicines. His study of plants and his methodical nature ended up changing the world.

Part of what’s so interesting about this story is how differently the world was seen in those days. Something that earned Linnaeus fame was determining that the Seven-Headed Hydra of Hamburg was a fake. I love that it took a scientist to figure that out!

The book is full of illustrations, and many of them are reproductions from Linnaeus’s notebooks. There are sidebars with interesting notes, and the story of his life is told in an engaging way. This is an interesting story about someone I never before realized was so important.

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Review of Friends Forever, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Friends Forever

by Shannon Hale
artwork by LeUyen Pham
color by Hilary Sycamore and LeUyen Pham

First Second, 2021. 300 pages.
Review written September 21, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Friends Forever is the third in Shannon Hale’s graphic novel trilogy of memoirs about middle school. This one covers eighth grade.

The things Shannon faces in eighth grade aren’t surprising: issues with friends, family, boys, her own looks, popularity, how people see her, and what is she good at. But since these are things most eighth graders have to deal with – it’s great to have a story out there in an accessible graphic novel form of a kid facing those things.

I’m not sure I’d want to revisit the angst of eighth grade to write a book about it. Shannon Hale has done this in an encouraging and uplifting way, and kids today will benefit.

And don’t think this is only a problem novel. It’s also an entertaining true story about the ups and downs of middle school – but she doesn’t neglect the upside. This is a fun and quick read about one particular eighth grade kid who indeed grew up to be a famous author.

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Review of Before They Were Artists, by Elizabeth Haidle

Before They Were Artists

Famous Illustrators as Kids

by Elizabeth Haidle

Etch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 64 pages.
Review written July 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a picture-book-sized nonfiction book for children in graphic novel format telling about the childhoods of six distinguished illustrators.

I would have never thought to put these particular illustrators together in a book, and I love the variety of backgrounds they represent. We’ve got:

Wanda Gág, who wrote Millions of Cats, born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are, born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York.
Tove Jansson, who wrote Finn Family Moomintroll, born in 1914 in Helsinki, Finland.
Jerry Pinkney, who wrote The Lion and the Mouse, born in 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Yuyi Morales, who wrote Just a Minute, born in 1968 in Xalapa, Mexico.
Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, born in 1941 in Tokyo, Japan.

Each illustrator gets a title spread with one book featured (the one I listed above), a picture of the illustrator as a child in the landscape of their own books, with a quotation coming from a speech bubble. There’s a time line across the bottom with notable events in their lives, including other books they’ve written. Then they each get six to eight more pages with panels in graphic novel format telling about their childhoods, how they got started in art, and their many accomplishments.

This book is delightful to look at and presents lots of information in an entertaining way. It’s sure to inspire other young artists or at least get them thinking about what their love for art could lead to.

There’s a spread at the front with the title “What makes an illustrator?” It talks about how they had many different backgrounds, but they loved to draw.

In all cases, inspiration from someone else helped pave the way: another artist, animator, cartoonist, or painter whose books, films, or paintings moved hearts and imprinted themselves on minds. These heroes and mentors made a path of possibility to walk down.

May the stories in this book inspire other artists in turn.

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Review of A Most Clever Girl, by Jasmine A. Stirling and Vesper Stamper

A Most Clever Girl

How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice

by Jasmine A. Stirling
illustrated by Vesper Stamper

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021. 44 pages.
Review written June 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

How do you tell kids about the life of a novelist who writes books for adults? Jasmine Stirling talks about Jane Austen’s supportive family and life circumstances growing up. But she also, in a simple way, explains what kind of writing was prevalent in Jane’s day and how she made fun of it. Here’s how the book begins:

Jane loved stories – long ones, short ones, worn and new.

But there were some kinds of stories that she just couldn’t stand.
These were pale stories with delicate ladies who fainted all the time. (ALAS!)
Or gloomy stories with orphans on doorsteps and terrible secrets in the attic. (OOOH!)
Or sticky-sweet stories where people fell in love at first sight. (EWW!)

This was the fluff that was fashionable in those days. Jane found it, well, stale. And predictable.

You see, Jane had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.

Jane started writing silly stories that poked fun at the fluff.
In one, a pair of pale ladies took turns fainting on a sofa. (ALAS!)
In another, a mother abandoned her baby under a haystack only to discover her alive . . . weeks later. (OOOH!)
In yet another, two children were so hungry they bit off their mother’s fingers. (EWW!)

After this engaging beginning, the book goes on to tell about the circumstances of her life. How her father encouraged her writing. (I love the inclusion of the writing desk he gave her, since I’ve seen that desk in the British Library, and when I did, it brought tears to my eyes.)

But then money got tight, they moved to Bath, and Jane’s father died. The book takes us through those events and on to the time when her brother gave Jane and her sister and mother a cottage to live in. There, Jane began writing again and found her voice.

The illustrator explains at the back how much she enjoyed researching on location. She uses pink to represent youthful playfulness, gray for the hard years, and green as Jane found new maturity.

This book came along just in time for the Jane Austen virtual symposium I’m attending beginning the day after I’m writing this review. The author is going to be speaking and talking about how she attempted to convey Jane Austen’s life in picture book form. I’m looking forward to hearing her speak, already impressed with the results of her work.

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Review of Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, by Laurie Wallmark, art by Brooke Smart

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter

How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars

words by Laurie Wallmark
art by Brooke Smart

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 44 pages.
Review written May 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book biography features a female American code breaker, a woman I’d never heard of before – whose work was declassified in 2015, thirty-five years after her death.

Most of us have heard of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who broke the German’s Enigma code. I hadn’t realized that America was working separately on cracking the code and succeeded separately to crack the code. And the person in charge of that effort was a woman, Elizebeth Friedman.

Her work as a code breaker began long before that. She was hired in 1916 to try to find secret messages hidden in Shakespeare’s plays by Francis Bacon, whom her employer thought was the real author of the plays. She didn’t succeed in finding any, but that got her started in decoding. She and her husband were involved in the United States government’s first code-breaking unit, the Riverbank Department of Ciphers, in 1917 during World War I. They wrote pamphlets about the techniques they developed which are considered the basis for the modern science of cryptology.

She didn’t only work during war time, although she served during both wars. She also used her methods to catch smugglers during Prohibition and later captured spies.

I’ve recently reviewed books about making and breaking codes and ciphers, so I love this one about a woman who made that her life’s work. The author includes fun details such as the dinner party that Elizebeth and her husband hosted in 1938 where the guests had to solve clues to figure out where each course was being served.

Because of the top secret nature of her work, Elizebeth wasn’t celebrated for her accomplishments in her lifetime. Here’s how this picture book biography ends:

Elizebeth was a true heroine of both World War I and World War II. She is now considered one of the most gifted and influential code breakers of all time. Yet no one knew how many codes she broke, how many Nazis she stopped, how many American lives she saved . . . until now.

There’s more information at the back of the book including hints about coded messages hidden in the illustrations. This is a perfect book for kids interested in codes.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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Review of Almost American Girl, by Robin Ha

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.

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

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.

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