Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book Nominations: Biographies

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the people by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis.

The Text: Pablo Neruda's love of words is celebrated through a litany of the subjects of his poems; stones and markets, people and forests. This celebration is framed by a few simple facts about his life.

The Illustrations: Paschkis' illustrations show Neruda's love of words with Spanish and English words incorporated into each spread, swirling on the streets, marching across ferns, and spread in ribbons across the sky.

The Extras: An author's note adds a few facts about Neruda's life. Additional resources include a list of his poetry, a few books about Neruda's life, and some websites.

Verdict: This is a lovely book, but without substance. Although this purports to be a biography of the poet, not a single line of his poetry is included. The story sounds pretty, but additional rereading reveals few actual facts about his life and those given have no critical depth - Neruda is consistently presented as a wonderful, perfect person and even the mention of the soldiers coming after him and his flight sounds cheerful. Teachers doing a unit on Pablo Neruda may find this an interesting supplemental resource, but without any of Neruda's poetry included and only basic facts, this book is really nothing more than a beautifully written and illustrated fan letter. 

ISBN: 978-0805091984; Published March 2011 by Henry Holt; Borrowed from the library

Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

The Text: Van Allsburg tells the story of Annie Taylor, a sixty-two-year old widow and teacher. Forced to close her charm school for lack of students interested in learning dance and manners, Taylor hit upon the idea of a wild stunt that would ensure her fame and fortune for her declining years. After much argument and many problems, she finally achieved her goal: In 1901 she became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrell. Unfortunately, her feat was quickly forgotten and the little money and acclaim she managed to get was taken by her unscrupulous agent and others. She eventually ended up selling souvenirs at the Falls and largely forgotten although she remains the only woman to ever go over the Falls alone.

The Illustrations: Van Allsburg's trademark illustrations in shades of gray give a fantastical flavor to the story, focusing on the faces of the various characters as they alternate between shock, surprise, amazement, and excitement. The illustrations seem like captured black and white photos, freezing moments in time in the story.

The Extras: A brief author's note explains how the author came to write the story of Annie Taylor, gives a list of successful barrel riders, and a brief bibliography.

Verdict: It's hard to adjust from Van Allsburg's fantasies to a nonfiction title. He says in his author's note that the story took on a fantastical flavor and it definitely does become more surreal as the tale progresses. However, the pictures don't really have the movement and excitement needed to hold the interest of listeners throughout the lengthy text. I would have liked to see this as a chapter book with Van Allsburg's illustrations inset like photographs. If you have a lot of Van Allsburg fans, this could be a popular title, but as a stand-alone nonfiction title, it's readership will be limited.

ISBN: 978-0547315812; Published April 2011 by Houghton Mifflin; Borrowed from the library

She loved baseball: The Effa Manley story by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Don Tate.

The Text: Vernick introduces the story of Effa Manley with her childhood separated from her darker-skinned siblings, then the excitement of Philadelphia and New York in the early 1900s, her marriage to Abe Manley and involvement in a movement to desegragate the businesses in predominantly black Harlem. Finally, she became the business manager for the Brooklyn Eagles, a team in the new Negro National League of baseball. After baseball was desegragated and the Negro National League ended, Effa Manley determined to keep their history - and the legacy of her deceased husband - alive. Throughout the rest of her life, she worked to see the players in her team and the league honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame. After her death in 1981, her players continued to be honored until in 2006 she became the first woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Illustrations: Tate's elongated illustrations show the excitement and energy Effa Manley and the players and people she loved. He moves from crowd scenes to close-ups, showing Manley's interactions with her players and the various people involved in baseball.

The Extras: No extras.

Verdict: It's hard to interest children in historical sports - anything other than last year's most popular player and this year's scores seems hopelessly outdated. This biography isn't really about baseball, but about the life of Effa Manley. It's interesting, but I have trouble seeing an audience for it in a public library. The illustrations look like caricatures and seem to fall short of expressing the emotions of the characters they are portraying. Useful in a school environment, where you would have a captive audience for obscure sports history, but I wouldn't recommend it for a public library collection. There are several longer chapter books that kids are more likely to pick up for a report or free reading.

ISBN: 978-0061349201; Published October 2010 by Collins; Borrowed from the library

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a great pretender: The  true story of a Civil War spy by Carrie Jones, illustrated by Mark Oldroyd.

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War hero by Marissa Moss, illustrated by John Hendrix.

The Text: Both of these biographies focus on the life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who passed as a man named Frank Thompson, first to make a living and then to join the Civil War. She fought in battle, worked as a nurse, and then masqueraded as a spy - a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman!
Eventually, she fell ill and was forced to leave the army for fear of being discovered. She eventually married, wrote a memoir, and donated the proceeds to help African Americans and veterans. Jones' biography focuses on Sarah's masquerades, from passing as a boy to escape her father's temper to her escapades in the war. Jones' emphasizes Edmonds' possible feelings throughout her story and has a confidential, casual tone. Moss' biography deals specifically with Edmonds' war years, writing crisply and briskly about her time as a spy and her work with wounded soldiers.

The Illustrations: Oldroyd's illustrations are hazy pastels. The cover is the clearest picture, with most of the spreads showing swirling, scratchy textures. Edmonds' face is the only clear one, peering through the mist of colors. John Hendrix' illustrations are more clear-cut caricatures, with brisk, definite lines and a variety of typefaces and designs to show off Moss' more dialogue-focused text.

The Extras: Carrie Jones' biography includes a brief author's note which speculates on Edmond's motivations in addition to offering some additional information about her life and a brief bibliography. Marissa Moss' biography includes a lengthy author's note on her writing methods and an extended history of Edmond's life after the Civil War. John Hendrix includes an artist's note that explains how he researched the drawings and has additional information about the hand-drawn typography. Moss' biography also includes an extensive glossary, two bibliographies, and index.

Verdict: Carrie Jones' biography of Sarah Edmonds has a lively tone, but the illustrations are uninspired and the information is more speculative. Marissa Moss' biography and John Hendrix' illustrations are altogether more brisk, and have an enthusiastic clarity and movement that will attract a wider readership. I recommend the latter biography for the library collection.

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a Great Pretender
ISBN: 978-0761353997; Published April 2011 by Carolrhoda Books; Borrowed from the library

Nurse, Soldier, Spy
ISBN: 978-0810997356; Published March 2011 by Abrams; Borrowed from the library

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