Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book Nominations: Biographies

 Jim Henson: The guy who played with puppets by Kathleen Krull, illustrated Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

The Text: Kathleen Krull, veteran biography author, tells the story of Jim Henson, from his daydreaming childhood in the 1930s and early interest in puppets and stagecraft to his early work in tv. The reader is introduced to Henson's Muppets, the source of his early fame and success, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and on to his experimental films.

The Illustrations: Fancher and Johnson's illustrations are more conventional paintings without their usual backdrop of intricate patterns. The Muppet drawings are the most realistic, with the real people often looking like puppets with enlarged or elongated heads.

The Extras: A list of sources, those for young readers starred, is appended along with some additional websites.

The Verdict: This is a biographical subject that is likely to appeal to children, but I felt the illustrations were poorly chosen. Fancher and Johnson's usual elaborate style was toned down and felt somewhat bland. I think this biography could have been improved with more photographic illustrations. I also would have liked to see more specific source notes, especially for some of the emotions and thoughts attributed to Henson's childhood. However, it's a popular subject and there's not a glut of Henson biographies on the market. This is well-timed with the new Muppet movie coming out and will definitely circulate. Recommended.

ISBN: 978-0375857218; Published August 2011 by Random; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

The Text: In lyrical prose, Burleigh tells the story of Amelia Earhart's famous solo flight across the Atlantic. He describes her emotions and what she saw and experienced as well as the technical aspects of the flight.

The Illustrations: Minor's gouache and watercolor illustrations are swirling symphonies of color and pattern. Amelia's red plane drifts through multi-colored clouds and over dark, rippling seas. Her tension, determination, and focus are shown in close-ups of her face and the plane.

The Extras: The endpapers include a detailed map of Amelia's flight and simple diagram of her plane. The afterword gives a simple overview of Amelia's life and famous flights. There is a technical note from the illustrator on the details of her plane, additional bibliography and internet resources, and a short list of quotes from Amelia Earhart.

Verdict: Do we really need another poetical biography of Amelia Earhart? The language is lovely, the illustrations are lovely, and there are many, many biographies of this famous woman. I would also rather see more factual information and less on how Amelia might have felt crossing the ocean. If you have a huge body of fans clamoring for more books on Amelia, you might consider this title, otherwise Candace Fleming's new biography is all you need on the subject of Amelia Earhart.

ISBN: 978-1416967330; Published February 2011 by Simon & Schuster; Borrowed from the library

Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos

The Text: Cardillo traces Audrey Hepburn's life from her dream of ballet dancing, her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, and her rise to fame as an actress. The story doesn't stop with her as a famous actress; it tells of her kindness and professional behavior, how much she loved being a mother, and her work as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. The text is simple and accessible to a young listener, but carries the same joyful exuberance as Audrey herself, touching lightly on a variety of scenes, events, and character traits.

The Illustrations: Complete disclosure: I am a HUGE fan of Julia Denos. I love her delicate paintings and she was the perfect choice for this biography. With the tilt of a head, a smile, a pose, she conveys not just Audrey Hepburn's famous beauty and individual sense of style, but the warmth and strength of her personality. From a determined young Audrey learning ballet to an elegant older woman speaking to Congress, Julia Denos captures the life of Audrey in swirling colors and expressive features.

The Extras: Both author and illustrator include a lengthy note of how they came to be involved in the project and their appreciate of Audrey Hepburn's life and work. A timeline and bibliography are also included.

The Verdict: This beautiful book is sure to be a hit both with life-long fans of Hepburn and children who are new to her. The cover is eye-catching and the text simple enough to read aloud to kindergarteners, but gives enough interesting information to intrigue older listeners and readers. Highly recommended.

ISBN: 978-0061852831; Published January 2011 by Balzer+Bray; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library; Purchased as a gift

Irena Sendler and the children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

The Text: Rubin tells the little-known story of Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who saved over 2,000 Jewish children during World War II. Irena worked with the Polish Socialist Party's resistance movement to issue false papers and aid Jews in the increasingly crowded Warsaw Ghetto. In 1942, she joined Zegota, the secret Council for Aid to Jews and was placed in charge of the Department of Help for Jewish Children. Irena and those she supervised saved thousands of children, smuggling them out of the ghetto in ingenius ways, teaching them to pass as Catholics, and finding safe houses for them. Even after she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo, Sendler refused to reveal information about the resistance - or about her secret record of children's names. Her friends managed to rescue her before she was executed and she continued to work for the resistance, despite her injuries and the great danger. When Soviet troops liberated Warsaw, Irena sent the list of names to the head of the Jewish Committee, Dr. Adolph Berman. It was the only record and helped to reunite children with their parents and families.

The Illustrations: The story is organized into large pages of text facing full-page oil paintings. Many of the pictures are dark and blurry, showing night scenes; Irena delivering a child to a convent, faded photographs of separated children and their families, and refugees fleeing the Warsaw Uprising. Most of the pictures feature Irena, calm and assured as she comforted children, made and hid records, and faced the Gestapo.
The Extras: An afterword tells of Irena Sendler's continued suffering under the Communist government and the children and families who remembered her; when Poland was freed from Communist rule in 1989, Irena Sendler was recognized and awarded for her courageous actions. Additional resources, source notes, acknowledgements, and an index are also included.

Verdict: This is an excellent book, well-researched with a good presentation of text. Although the illustrations aren't to my taste, they fit the tone of the book and add emotion to the descriptions. My complaint about this book...why, why, why, was it formatted as a picture book? If this had been written as a chapter book, perhaps with additional photographs and the oil paintings interspersed, I could have booktalked it easily. It's nearly long enough, if the afterword had been expanded into additional chapters it could have hit the magic 100 page mark. As it is, the text is too long for a read-aloud and the schools here don't study World War II until middle school, so there are very few parents or teachers looking for lengthy read-alouds on this subject. If you have a call for materials on World War II and the Holocaust for younger children this is a good choice, but only need older titles - 5th grade and above - on this subject.

ISBN: 978-0823422517; Published April 2011 by Holiday House; Borrowed from the library

My First Biography: Harriet Tubman by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Tammie Lyon.

The Text: Simple sentences tell the story of Harriet Tubman's escape to freedom and how she helped many other slaves escape. Her later work for women and the elderly is also included.

The Illustrations: The illustrations have a slight cartoonish feel to them, showing slaves working, escaping, and Harriet's later work. There's no depth or feeling, just rather bland and basic pictures to go with the text.

The Extras: No additional information included.

The Verdict: This might work in a school  setting, if a teacher is looking for a biography for a kindergartener or first grade student to read, but there are many, many excellent biographies of Harriet Tubman and this one is really bland. This is the type of series nonfiction publishers put out to fulfill curriculum requirements. Not recommended.

ISBN: 978-0545232579; Published December 2010 by Scholastic; Borrowed from the library

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