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Postcard from Planet Esme...

by Esmé Codell

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This article was printed from Teachers.Net Gazette,
located at http://teachers.net.

Living La Vida Reading: Great Picture Book Biographies

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "If you would not be forgotten…either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing." In honor of such good advice, here is a baker's dozen worth of reading about lives that were definitely worth the writing!

Biography is one shelf in the library that is really beginning to bow under the weight of great new contributions, not only applauding traditional historical figures but folks like creative artists and environmentalists who tread off the beaten track to make their mark. Imagine, if you read aloud just one picture book biography a week for the rest of the school year, how many great figures would the children get to know, how many great accomplishments could serve a whole new generation as inspiration? Share these with kids of all ages and stages as a way to celebrate Women's History Month, Latino History Month, or use biography to create your own twist on American Idol…you'll find you've garnered all the kids' votes for reading idol, for sure!

  • Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books
  • by Kay Winters,
    illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
    published by Simon and Schuster

    They thought he was lazy, this boy who would take a book out of his back pocket to read at the end of each row he'd plow. In fact, bigger things were in store for this young dreamer who was destined to become out 16th president. Readers are treated to a homey glimpse of this hero's boyhood, leaning on his father's lap by the fireside as yarns were spun, splitting wood, shivering with his sister in a drafty log loft. It chronicles both the dark days (like when Abe's mother dies of "milk sickness" when he is nine) and exciting adventures (such as the great wrestling match between him and Jack Armstrong, which was met with cries of "Body slam! Body slam!" by my second grade listeners). The story stops where most others begin, as Lincoln takes his seat at the White House. The unpretentious illustrations are evocative of the period and contain many details that are springboards to discussion, such as what schools were like in pioneer times, and why Lincoln campaigned from a train. To be honest, this is one of the best biographical selections to come along for young booklovers in a long time. (age 6 and up)

  • A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inez
  • by Pat Mora,
    illustrated by Beatriz Vidal
    published by Knopf

    This exquisite volume pays homage to the great poet of the seventeenth century and one of the greatest booklovers of all time. While children today still recite her poetry throughout the Spanish-speaking world and her face appears on Mexican currency, many North American girls will find a new and worthy heroine between these bindings. Juana Inéz is a child prodigy, her thirst for knowledge so great that she follows her sister to school when she is three years old and learns to read. So begins an unusual childhood for her time; though girls were not permitted at university, at ten years old she went to Mexico City where she was privately tutored, ultimately becoming a lady-in-waiting at the viceroy's palace and wowing the court and an assemblage of forty scholars. She ultimately left the palace and became a nun so that she could concentrate on her pursuit of knowledge and create one of the largest libraries in all of the Americas, and one glorious day, her own book of poetry would be added to those shelves. Children will be inspired by her cheerfulness and insistent spirit, and intrigued by how someone so long ago could have had such modern sensibilities. Nearly every page is graced with borders of delicate fruit and flowers, and the illustrations are crisp and elegant, painted using small brushes under a magnifying glass. A jewel of a book about a jewel of a woman. (age 7 and up)

  • George Washington's Teeth
  • by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora,
    illustrated by Brock Cole
    published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    What was the biggest challenge for the father of our country? The invasion of British troops? Winter at Valley Forge? No, it was toothaches that ultimately brought poor George Washington to his knees! Starting at age twenty-four, Washington lost a tooth a year (spitting out two as he crossed the Delaware) and by the time he took office, he had only two chompers left! No wonder he didn't smile for his portraits! Told in witty verse, we follow the immortal general as he battles this mortal and mortifying malady. The watercolors are glorious and humane. This book shows that even the most powerful people are prone to an Achilles' heel (or molar), and incorporates all sorts of fascinating and downright juicy history. A timeline is included at the end, along with a photograph of Washington's last set of dentures carved from hippopotamus ivory. It is unusual to find history told in a way that is so accessible and compelling to young children. How resonating is this book? My son came up to me wiggling a tooth and announced joyfully, "Ma! I'm just like George Washington!" (age 6 and up)

  • How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning
  • by Rosalyn Schanzer,
    illustrated by Ingrid Godon
    published by HarperCollins

    Although the life of Ben Franklin offers enough fodder for several biographies, the author chose to focus on his scientific inquiry to create a picture book children are sure to get a charge out of. Schanzer's conversational tone coupled with a sense of suspense as to exactly what invention allowed Franklin to steal lightning from the sky make this story a page-turner. Franklin is depicted as a visionary, initiating the first fire department, first lending library, being the inventor of bifocals, the second hand on the clock, odometers…the list goes on and on and on, the book clearly making the point that there is no American today that is not touched daily in one way or another by this man's initiative. The cartoonish illustrations shows Franklin in all sizes and in all sorts of poses, versatile and jolly, fitting to the man and lots of fun for the lucky reader. From the endpapers featuring Franklin's original drawings for possible experiments to the detailed endnotes, the author's enthusiasm for her subject is clear, and contagious. And what exactly did he invent that "stole lightning" and saved countless lives (including his own family's)? Read it and see! (6 and up) Older and motivated children may also enjoy the handsome and informative B. Franklin, Printer by David A. Adler. A little chatty-chat about electrical safety wouldn't be out of order, either.

  • Beatrix
  • by Jeanette Winter
    published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    On the third floor nursery of a tall brick house in Victorian England, there lived a lonely little girl who loved animals. Visits to the countryside and to museums fed the curiosity of this headstrong child. This is the young Beatrix Potter, who grew up to become a great naturalist and artist, and ultimately the author of the beloved Tale of Peter Rabbit. The remarkable thing about this biography is that it really can be enjoyed by children young enough to enjoy Peter Rabbit. Many children will quickly identify with Potter's desire to find friends wherever they may be, and her escapes into imagination. The book is cleverly designed to fit small hands, with each page containing a frugal amount of text accompanied by a "snapshot" of an illustration, again, a tribute to the format of Potter's twenty-three funny little books for children. From the tasteful twining of green vines of the front cover to the clever rabbit casting a sidelong glance over the barcode on the back, this sophisticated biography will give enjoyment and insight to all who read it. (4 and up)

  • Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley
  • by Sharon Darrow,
    illustrated by Angela Barrett
    published by Candlewick

    At fourteen, Mary Wollstonecraft is sent from a Cinderella-like situation in England to Scotland, residing with friends who she came to love as family. Through the cultivated language of the author, we can imagine days strolling by the shores and fireside evenings (sans television!) imagining the most spine-chilling of stories for entertainment, some even shared here for the reader's shivering pleasure. Upon her return to England, she still failed to fit the mold that her family intends for her and mourns for the mother she never knew, but translates her isolation into power by writing what two hundred years later is considered one of the first modern works of science fiction, Frankenstein. It is clear to see that the romantic situation of her upbringing lent itself to the literary nurturing of Mary Shelly. Here is an example of a perfect picture book for older children. The illustrations are full of silhouettes and dark, with an emphasis on romantic setting, as was the case with Shelley's own writing. It lets off where feature husband Percy enters the picture, usually where high school curriculum begins. Definitely Goth. (9 and up)

  • Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream
  • by Robert Burleigh,
    illustrated by Wendell Minor
    published by Atheneum

    "Be a store owner, his father said./But John went to the woods instead." So begins a fictional letter written in verse to the father of naturalist painter John Audubon, explaining to his disappointed parent why he must follow his unconventional path into the woods. Underneath each piece of verse written by the author is a complimentary segment from Audubon's real journal, which makes for tricky read-aloud, unless you consider that you can actually read this book two different ways, either one telling of a man with a great appreciation of his environment and a passion to preserve it for the ages. The accomplished paintings of Wendell Minor and samples of Audubon's own work combine to compliment this introduction to an American original. A bird in this book is worth two in the bush. (8 and up)

  • Far Beyond the Garden Gate: Alexandra David-Neel's Journey to Lhasa
  • by Don Brown
    published by Houghton Mifflin

    Even as a child, Alexandra's favorite gifts were maps and travel gifts, and she would wander from her home only to be found hundreds of miles away. These were the adventurous beginnings of the girl who in 1924 would become a Buddhist scholar and the first Western woman to visit Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet. The escapades with her friend across frozen mountain passes in disguise, in search of the  Forbidden City  are told in present tense and are peppered with quotes from her journals, giving this story a thrilling immediacy. The artwork is stark and belies the solitude of the journey and the boundlessness of both the landscape and her traveling spirit. How boundless? Alexandra was 101 years old when she died, but renewed her passport just a few months earlier! Don Brown has done several biographies of remarkable people (women in particular). It is with special pleasure that this book is recommended; a truly eye-popping, awe-inspiring tale that is too good to be true…yet it is! (7 and up)

  • Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez
  • by Kathleen Krull,
    illustrated by Yuyi Morales
    published by Harcourt

    On a ranch in the Arizona desert was a family thriving on eighty acres, until the great drought drove them all to migrant work. Though their crops may have withered, a seed was germinating in young Cesar Chavez. The indignities he experienced as a shy Spanish-speaking student and the grueling conditions are honestly portayed. Children will be stirred by these indignities, and their hearts equally swelled by the huelga, Chavez's peaceful movement against threatening overlords. His three-hundred mile march from Delano to Sacramento was the longest in U.S. history, and resulted in the first ever contract for farmworkers. This is an extremely powerful book, underscoring the bravery and resolve it takes to engage in non-violent protest, and rightly puts Chavez on the same scaffolding as Martin Luther King as a champion of civil rights. The lush illustrations roll across double-pages horizontally set, thoughtfully designed as to emphasize distance: how far the people had to travel both spiritually and physically to achieve the goal. A page-turning read-aloud about an important chapter of Latino history, this is a welcome and well done contribution to the shelves of children's biography. Viva la Causa! (7 and up)

  • Mother to Tigers
  • by George Ella Lyon,
    illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
    published by Atheneum

    Helen Delaney Martini had three babies...baby tigers, that is! When her husband, a zookeeper at the Bronx zoo brought home animals that needed special care, they thrived under Helen's loving touch. When the tigers grew up, she realized there would always be zoo babies who needed nurturing, and started the first zoo nursery!  Before Helen arrived, no tiger born at the zoo ever survived. She raised twenty seven." So the next time you visit the big cats in the zoo, just think, that they may be grandcubs of Helen's wards! This compelling picture book biography of the Bronx's zoo's first woman zookeeper will touch the heart of any animal lover, and are accented with dramatic illustrations in torn paper panels. (7 and up)

  • Uncle Andy's: A Faabbulous Visit with Andy Warhol
  • By James Warhola
    published by Putnam

    Visiting Uncle Andy in Manhattan is like visiting another world, with his dozens of cats (all named Sam), dozens of wigs and dozens of collections that make his pad a kind of wonderland for kids. The world may know "Uncle Andy" as Andy Warhol, the pop artist from the 1960-70's, but to his nephew suggests his fifteen minutes of fame is deserved for being possibly the most fun uncle on the planet. This book does a good job of showing a famous person as a real person, and that the most memorable things we do are in the way we treat other people. Pack rats will also love this book…and what teacher isn't one? (age 7 and up)

  • Float Like a Butterfly: Muhammad Ali
  • By Ntzoake Shange,
    Illustrated by Edel Rodruigez
    published by Hyperion

    This simple timeline of the man who called himself "The Greatest" and convinced the world that it was so is a very striking introduction to this legendary boxer. The focus is on the values that made Ali such a stand-out (refusal to fight in Vietnam, his name change after conversion to Islam) and incidents in his life that may have motivated him, such as standing at a "white" fountain in the segregated South and the theft of his bike that led him to take up boxing. These events powerfully portrayed in poster-slash-comic book art will really pack a punch with reluctant readers. This powerful tribute serves as a good introduction, and if kids can handle a few more rounds check out Champion: The Story of Muhammad Ali by James Haskins.

  • Talkin' About Bessie
  • by Nikki Grimes,
    illustrated by E.B. Lewis
    published by Scholastic

    There have been so many children's book biographies of first African-American female aviator Elizabeth Coleman that when this one arrived, I rolled my eyes. But a longer look proved that this was no ordinary Bessie Coleman biography any more than Bessie Coleman was an ordinary pilot! Treatment of this barnstormer's story is a brainstorm, in which her life is told in free verse through many, many voices: her relatives, her grade school teacher, classmates, a field hand, a laundry customer, a drummer, a benefactor, reporters and fans. This device allows the reader to know not only Bessie, but the time in which she lived and the people whose lives she touched. Not only is this an outstanding biography, but it is an outstanding model for aspiring writing, begging questions such as how do we learn about characters? Does point of view make a difference? Do some perspectives have more weight than others? Older children can be challenged to develop their own characters using Grimes' framework, and it doesn't have to be someone famous. That's really the beauty of this book; Bessie Coleman was "anybody" before she was "somebody," and the determination that set her apart is outlined in small steps through these voices. The last voice in the book is Bessie's, and by then, you are rooting for her to fly on forever…which she will, thanks to this rare life story. The realistic watercolors are accomplished and help this book to soar. (9 and up)

    I know I said last month we would be focusing on a single review, but great books are like potato chips, it's hard to stop at just one! The same is true once you start reading these aloud. Links to more reviews and information for all of these books can be found at http://www.planetesme.com/dontmiss.html.

    Last bit of news, we are celebrating the release of my new book, Sahara Special, a classroom adventure about an underachiever who makes good through the power of writing! Check it out along with comments by Newbery Award winner Avi at http://www.planetesme.com/saharaspecial.html. Teacher's guide coming soon! Woo-HOO! Though I know some of you grade pretty hard, I am looking forward to your feedback!

    Gold stars to all you for all you do to connect great children with great books. Happy reading always!
    Esme Raji Codell,
    Site Director
    PlanetEsme.com: A Wonderful World of Children's Literature!

    Also of Interest:

    If I Can Do It, So Can You!
    Grown-ups who want to try their hand at the children's publishing game should check out
    I can't wait to review your book someday! And of course, you're never to young to begin your writing career…there's over a hundred "story starters" for kids at

    Middle School Poetry Contest!
    A unique contest is being given by one of our favorite children's poets, Kristine O'Connell George, celebrated author of Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems. All submissions will be compiled into an Internet anthology we all can enjoy!

    Some Seedy Reading!
    Plant some light bulbs when you plant the flower bulbs with these books about gardening for your little sprouts.
    Other springtime stories at

    Planet Esmé www.planetesme.com

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