The titles reviewed below are not all of the biographies nominated obviously, just a selection. More coming later, after I have finished the Week From Hell.
A Nation's Hope: The story of boxing legend Joe Louis by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
The Text: Beginning with Joe Louis' historic fight against Max Schmeling, Matt de la Pena traces Louis' rise from tongue-tied boy to a growing hero of the boxing ring. After his defeat by Max Schmeling, Joe Louis fights his way back and unites Harlem - and all of America - by defeating the representative of Nazi Germany. Louis' life is shown in brief free verse poetry, each section packing a heavy emotional punch.
The Illustrations: Kadir Nelson's illustrations are rich with life and color, showing close-ups of Joe's defeat and courage as he rises again. Every character is individual, with memorable facial features and a vivid rainbow of skin colors.
The Extras: No additional information included.
The Verdict: Beautiful and poetic, but the audience will be limited. I might be able to get some kids interested in Joe Louis, but not in a picture book/poetry story of his life. A larger library might purchase this, but I have to watch my budget more carefully.
ISBN: 978-0803731677; Published January 2011 by Dial; Borrowed from the library
Before there was Mozart: The story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
The Text: This is a biography of the little-known musical genius who became popular shortly before Mozart and shared his musical talent, although the two men never met. Boulogne fought against prejudice against his illegitimate birth, skin color, and lack of status to become a famous violin player, conductor, and finally play before the king and queen of France.
The Illustrations: The mixed media illustrations are serviceable, but without distinction. The facial expressions are generally cheerful and the clothing and hairstyles appropriate for the time period.
The Extras: An author's note at the back summarizes the little information known about Joseph Boulogne and his life after playing before the French royal family.
The Verdict: I found this story interesting, although I'm not a fan of the music of Mozart's day (I prefer Henry Purcell). However, other than the patron who asked for picture books on the great composers for his three year old, I've never run across a patron who was interested in Mozart or his contemporaries (other than "Baby Mozart" cds). Sometimes a biography of a more obscure personage will be picked up because of the illustrations, but these aren't eye-catching. Unless you have a large population of classical music enthusiasts, it's not worth purchasing.
ISBN: 978-0375836008; Published January 2011 by Schwartz & Wade; Borrowed from the library
Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by John O'Brien
The Text: The author offers vignettes of Franklin's life under each letter of the alphabet. Each letter includes a few paragraphs or a sentence, like the letter "A" which includes Franklin's almanac, his mother Abiah, Franklin as apprentice to his brother, and the armonica he invented. Franklin's inventions, quotations, philosophy, and many facts about his life are included. Some are well-known, like his preference for the turkey as national bird, others are more obscure, like his organization of the first fire company.
The Illustrations: O'Brien is a well-known cartoonist and his illustrations emphasize humor over historical detail, like a picture of a large clothed fish to illustration Franklin's saying "Fish and visitors smell in three days" and a series of cartoons illustrating some of Franklin's inventions which show a woman utilizing his extending claw and chair/stepladder to retrieve a book on a high shelf - complete with exuberant somersault.
The Extras: There are no extras included. While the text has so many facts and historical details that further information is unnecessary, I would really like to have seen sources for the many facts, quotes, dates, inventions, etc. that were included.
The Verdict: This was an interesting way to arrange a wide variety of informational tidbits about Franklin's life and work. I felt the subtitle "wit and wisdom" was unfortunate, since it made the book sound like a collection of quotations and it's much more than that. I'm not personally a fan of Schroeder's illustrations, but they fit the book well. This one will probably circulate with some judicious booktalking. It will be published in paperback this coming January and I will probably purchase it then.
ISBN: 978-0823419500; Published April 2011 by Holiday House; Borrowed from the library
Diego Rivera: His World and Ours by Duncan Tonatiuh
The Text: Tonatiuh tells the story of Rivera's life in simple, brief text beginning with his love of drawing and art training, then his return to Mexico to paint murals around the city, combining classical art styles, experimental forms like cubism, and "ancient Mexican art" he had seen on his travels throughout the country. Tonatiuh finishes the book with a series of speculations on what Rivera would paint today, "Maybe Diego would paint shops at the mall...as he painted stree vendors selling flores."
The Illustrations: Tonatiuh's distinctive art style compares the Mexico that Rivera experienced and painted with the modern country and children. His art is heavily inspired by ancient art forms and even I can see the influences of Mayan and Aztec art.
The Extras: There are quite a few extras including a glossary of words and references, an author's note that expands on the life of Diego Rivera, a list of museums in the United States and around the world where Rivera's art can be found, and a bibliography. The final extra is a list of the works of Rivera that inspired specific illustrations in the story and an example of Rivera's art.
The Verdict: The author/illustrator says in his final note that his illustrations were not intended to be representatives of Rivera's works, but interpretations in "a manner both accessible to children and conducive to his own illustration style." I have to disagree with this idea. Whenever I think of Rivera, I'm going to see Tonatiuh's illustrations in my head. This isn't really a biography of Diego Rivera at all, more of a...sort of...artistic representation of him? It's clearly meant for very young children in the lack of details (the actual text never says where Rivera painted his famous murals for example) but how many young children will be interested in specific artists, let alone this one? This isn't really a biography (biographies of artists should be illustrated by, or at least include a large selection of, the artists' work in my opinion) it's a sort of excursion into Tonatiuh's own painting, loosely centered around Rivera's life. If you purchase it, which I don't recommend, put it in the picture books.
ISBN: 978-0810997318; Published May 2011 by Abrams; Borrowed from the library
The Text: Arranged as a serious of musical movements and sections, Rusch gives brief glimpses into the shadowy life of Mozart's brilliant elder sister, Maria Anna Mozart, often called Nannerl. She was hailed as a child genius when she toured with Mozart, but eventually she was left at home. As Mozart's fame grew, his equally gifted sister played at home, refusing to give up the music she loved even when she moved to a tiny village and married an elderly man with five stepchildren. Eventually, she returned to Salzburg and reconnected with music, although remaining in the background as a teacher and performing only in private concerts.
The Illustrations: The text is written on parchment laid over intricate collage backgrounds. The art includes brocades and patterns, with music notes woven throughout the pictures.
The Extras: An author's note discusses the few facts that are known about Maria's life and her sudden disappearance from public music. There is a brief note on finding music Mozart wrote for his sister (Maria's compositions no longer exist), a list of thanks, and a bibliography of books, letters and documents, and personal interviews.
The Verdict: This was a fascinating book and the illustrations are lovely. While the subject is unlikely to garner much interest (see above comments on the biography of Joseph Boulogne) the illustrations are more eye-catching and may entice a few patrons into pulling this off the shelf. If you have a little wiggle room in your budget, you might give this book a chance.
ISBN: 978-1582463261; Published February 2011 by Tricycle Press; Borrowed from the library