Picture Book Biographies to Dazzle a Fact-Loving Child
At a literacy center in Brooklyn where I volunteered a couple of years ago, I was often surprised by which books would catch a child’s eye. It was not always the ones with bold jackets or zany titles, as I somehow expected. Often it would be a quiet story — a bit old-fashioned, even. One favorite was Barbara Cooney’s 1982 “Miss Rumphius,” about a girl who grows up wanting to fulfill her grandfather’s request that she do something “to make the world more beautiful.” After many travels she finally returns home and plants a lot of blue and purple lupines in the fields around her house. The end.
I loved to watch how intently a young reader would turn the pages and puzzle out this modest and satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the story, too — and while it was partly inspired by a real-life figure, I wanted it to be all true.
Publishers of today’s picture books must be on my wavelength. Perhaps nudged by the Common Core crusade, which called in part for high-quality nonfiction for children, they are producing a bonanza of beautifully illustrated and closely researched nonfiction books about unsung heroes as well as heroes we can’t read enough about. Best of all, if you like true stories, they include superbly detailed endnotes and suggestions for further reading.
It’s anyone’s guess which of these new books a child might reach for — but it might surprise you.
from “Ode to an Onion”
Children who love words should warm to Alexandria Giardino’s ODE TO AN ONION: Pablo Neruda and His Muse (Cameron Kids, 32 pp., $17.95; ages 4 to 8), which imagines a small episode in the life of a great poet. The spare prose echoes Neruda’s own celebrations in verse of simple things, like the onion: “luminous vessel … bright as a planet,” vanquishing “the hunger / of the laborer along the hard road.” We first see Pablo at his desk, “writing a long, sad poem,” until he realizes he’s about to be late for lunch with his friend Mathilde. In Felicita Sala’s vivacious and beautifully detailed drawings, done in colored pencil, Mathilde’s smile and Pablo’s glum expression give a tender humor to this real-life relationship, as they gather vegetables from her garden to cook. The full text of his poem “Ode to the Onion” appears in the original Spanish at the end, and in an excellent translation by Giardino.
SO TALL WITHIN: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom(Roaring Brook, 32 pp., $18.99; ages 5 to 9), written by Gary D. Schmidt and illustrated by Daniel Minter, is a stirring introduction to an extraordinary life. Born into slavery on a Dutch farm in New York State, Sojourner Truth chose her own name after she won her freedom and began a walk that, over her long life, extended to thousands of miles as she journeyed from camp meetings to abolition halls “to tell the truth about Slavery.” She never learned to read or write, yet successfully sued a white slaveholder in court for the return of her son (who had been illegally sold), addressed the first Women’s Rights Conventions, and insisted on riding in whites-only streetcars in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War. “I felt so tall within — I felt as if the power of a nation was with me!” The plain-spoken and eloquent quotations in this book come directly from her 1878 memoir, “Narrative of Sojourner Truth.” Daniel Minter’s paintings, in saturated tones of midnight blues and leaf browns and golds, bring it powerfully to life.
Did you know that Japan bombed Oregon during World War II? I didn’t either. Sometimes the most inconsequential episodes in larger stories can turn out to be the most moving, and so it is with THIRTY MINUTES OVER OREGON: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story (Clarion, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 6 to 9), by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Melissa Iwai. After Pearl Harbor, apparently, the Japanese military believed a successful attack on the United States mainland would be effective propaganda, so in 1942 a bombing raid was planned to start a fire in the Oregon woods that would “rage into nearby towns and cities.” Iwai’s fine renderings of the unsuspecting townspeople of Brookings, Ore., are matched by her depictions of the bomber, which was launched from a Japanese submarine deck by slingshot. Fortunately, the plan failed, but the story goes someplace completely unexpected when, years later, the boosterish citizens of Brookings track down the pilot, Nobuo Fujita, to invite him to a Memorial Day ceremony. He is welcomed warmly — and even teased about his poor fire-setting skills — and friendships made that day continue to grow for another generation and beyond, until his story becomes a thought-provoking meditation on the power of forgiveness, of others and oneself.
The “girls who code” movement should probably get some extra credit for the trend in fine books about women who made history in science and math. NOTHING STOPPED SOPHIE: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain (Little, Brown, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), written by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Barbara McClintock, tells the story of a young woman who made her mark in the lofty academies of Paris after the French Revolution. With trouble in the streets, Sophie was often forced to stay inside for her safety, and she fell in love with the study of mathematics. She would even sneak out of bed to work on problems while everyone was asleep. Her parents’ response? To take away her candles! Yet she didn’t give up, and in 1816, after years of work, she won a grand prize from the Royal Academy of Sciences for solving an “impossible” problem: how to predict patterns of vibration, a real-life challenge to designers of buildings and bridges. Barbara McClintock’s illustrations in markers, gouache and collage show Sophie moving through life in a bright swirl of numbers, floating like thought balloons all around her.
Refreshingly, Sophie Germain’s story not only reminds us of the importance of perseverance, it recalls a time when discoveries were often made by hard-working amateurs — for the fun of it.