Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book Nominations: Biographies

When Bob met Woody: The story of the young Bob Dylan by Gary Golio, illustrated by Marc Burckhardt.

The Text: Golio introduces us to Bob Dylan's early life up until his meeting with Woody Guthrie and the influences that shaped his later life and music. Each stage in Dylan's life is told in simple language and with many quotations from Dylan and his friends.

The Illustrations: Burckhardt's style has a 1950s feel, with simple, clean lines and images. The backgrounds of the art have a crackled look, as though they were illustrations pulled out of an old box of memories. The text is framed in smaller illustrations and borders facing the larger paintings of scenes from young Bob Dylan's life.

The Extras: The afterword lists some of Bob Dylan's accomplishments and notes his storytelling propensities. This is followed by a list of sources and resources; books, audio, video, and websites. The author's note talks about how difficult it is to separate fact from fiction in a biography, especially with someone like Bob Dylan. A list of quotation notes are also included.

Verdict: This is a more accessible biography than Golio's earlier picture book on Jimi Hendrix. It has an open, pleasant feel and would make a good longer read-aloud for elementary ages, and will also be appreciated by older fans of Bob Dylan. Pair this with the picture book version of Dylan's God Gave Names To All The Animals, illustrated by Jim Arnosky.

ISBN: 978-0316112994; Published May 2011 by Little, Brown; Borrowed from the library

The Incredible Life of Balto by Meghan McCarthy

The Text: McCarthy tells the well-known story of Balto, the sled dog who saved the citizens of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum. But do we really know the story? Careful research reveals Balto as the inexperienced dog, surprisingly chosen to lead the team on the last leg of the race to Nome. Balto became famous, a statue was erected to him in Central Park, he met celebrities, a movie was made about him...but then Balto was sold. He was abused and shown as a sideshow freak until a businessman named George Kimble put together a fundraising campaign to purchase the famous Balto and his sled dog team. Balto spent the rest of his life happily at the Brookside Zoo in Chicago.

The Illustrations: Meghan McCarthy's pop-eyed illustrations show the people and places that Balto encountered throughout his tumultuous life. The paintings are in subdued shades of brown and blue and include paintings of photographs and newspaper articles.

The Extras: The author includes a "Detective Work" section, where she talks about her research, looking for the real story of Balto and what happened after his famous trek. Information on the other dogs and sled drivers is included, and there are quotations from them. She examined photographs and descriptions to determine Balto's actual appearance and coloring. Activities on researching past events are included and a bibliography of books and newspaper articles (and one radio show). The end papers are illustrated with a map of the area covered by the sled dogs.

Verdict: It's interesting to see an account of Balto that attempts to set the record straight on this confusing historical event. However, there's a lot of confusing speculation in the book - the contrast between the presentation of "facts" in the story and the author's discussion of how unreliable those facts are is jarring. While I enjoyed McCarthy's illustrations in Pop! The Invention of Bubblegum, they really didn't fit this story; when it is so focused on finding the truth behind the story, seeing the artist's imagined pictures of how things might have looked is incongruous. A good idea, but too many discordant elements.

ISBN: 978-0375844607; Published August 2009 by Knopf; Borrowed from the library

The Quite Contrary Man: A true American tale by Patricia Rusch Hyatt, illustrated by Kathryn Brown.

The Text: This is the weird but true story of Joseph Palmer, who stubbornly insisted on growing a beard despite his neighbors' horror. He eventually landed in jail, where he insisted on keeping his tremendous beard - and writing letters about the miserable treatment of prisoners. Palmer was finally released, still sticking to his principles, and his beard.

The illustrations: Brown's illustrations are a combination of watercolor and pen and ink sketches that give a homey, folksy feel to this story. Her people are caricatures with big noses and wildly flapping arms - and beard. Each section of text is framed in a drawn border of wood and vines.

The Extras: A historical note confirms the truth of the story and briefly discusses the way fashion changed to make beards so unfashionable. A brief note on the future life of Palmer and his family and some speculation on the motives behind the townspeople's persecution of his whiskers is also included.

Verdict: I would have liked a little more from his family's point of view - his wife is quoted as saying "Even though he is stubborn, I know he is right. He should be free to keep his beard." Did she really say this? How did she feel about supporting their family while her husband was in jail? Meandering even more into my personal bias, I'd like to see fewer biographies about people like Palmer and more biographies about the long-suffering wives and families who cared for children, kept house, and supported the family while their husbands and friends were indulging their eccentricities and standing up for their principles. Ok, personal bias aside, this is an amusing tall tale, but without any source notes or research shown, I wouldn't purchase it and it remains in the no-man's land between fiction and non-fiction.

ISBN: 978-0810940659; Published May 2011 by Abrams; Borrowed from the library

The Watcher: Jane Goodall's life with the chimps by Jeannette Winter.

The Text: In simple language and short sentences, Winter tells the story of Jane Goodall. She begins with her childhood, when Jane excelled at listening and watching animals and moves on to her first trip to Africa, to Kenya. There she met Louis Leakey and travelled to Gombe in Tanzania, which would become the heart of her research. Jane Goodall waited and watched and gradually the chimps in Gombe accepted her. As she watched and watched, she learned things about Chimps no one had ever discovered. Eventually, Jane left to become an advocate for the chimpanzees and their disappearing habitat.

The Illustrations: Jeannette Winter's simple illustrations add depth to the lyrical text and show Jane as a child, in her first year's of research, and as an older woman traveling around the world. She shows the vast landscapes and the individual behavior of the various chimpanzees with simple colors and shapes.

Extras: An author's note explained how the author refined Jane Goodall's life to the basic essentials in order to introduce her story to young children, adds some details about Goodall, and mentions some further resources. A note at the beginning of the story says the quotes within the text were taken from Goodall's autobiographies.

Verdict: This is a perfect picture book biography. Simple enough in text and illustration to be read aloud to children, but containing plenty of facts and information. There are few truly readable nonfiction picture books for younger children and this is a stellar example and one I look forward to reading aloud in storytime.

ISBN: 978-0375867743; Published April 2011 by Schwartz & Wade; Borrowed from the library

Tillie the terrible Swede: How one woman, a sewing needle, and a bicycle changed history by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy

The Text: In exuberant, exciting language, Stauffacher tells the story of Tillie Anderson, a young Swedish immigrant, who embraced the bicycling fervor of the 1890s and became a famous racer and female cyclist.

The Illustrations: The illustrations were created in gouache, hand-painted paper collage and black india ink. They are awash with colors, most of the illustrations are painted primarily contrasting colors.When Tillie dreams of cycling, her bright yellow dress clashes cheerfully with her mother's purple gown and dainty parlor. There are few details of faces, all of the characters are drawn as fleshed-out stick figures, with Tillie's wooden doll smile and blonde hair beaming steadily throughout the pictures.

The Extras: The back endpapers contain a timeline of Tillie's cycling victories and record breakers as well as an author's note that briefly explains the cycling craze and how it liberated women around the turn of the century. Additional resources are given in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book.

Verdict: The illustrations are bright and cheery, but without depth or emotion. I would have liked to see actual photographs and reproductions instead of the stylistic drawings. The additional information could have been arranged more helpfully for readers. This is a fun picture book, but I would recommend Wheels of Change if you're looking for a title on this topic.

ISBN: 978-0375844423; Published January 2011 by Knopf; Borrowed from the library

The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China by Ed Young with Libby Koponen

The Text and Illustrations: The story and illustrations in this book simply cannot be separated; they are completely interwoven in an intimate portrait of Ed Young's childhood before and during World War II in the house his father built in Shanghai. Photographs, paintings, line drawings, collage, cut paper, and more are used to tell the story of the house built by Ed Young's father, which became home not only to their family, but also to relatives and refugees. We see the war as it impacts a child; brief glimpses of rationing, a few moments of fear, thoughts about their refugee neighbors. Young simply presents his memories in a simple kaleidoscope; celebrating the New Year, raising silk worms, fighting crickets, swimming, roller skating, reading adventure stories, and struggling through Japanese lessons. Every page is a work of art, a symphony of colors, shapes, and language. In his author's note, Ed Young explains his struggle to write the book coherently and how it came to it's present shape; gives photos, maps, and timelines, and shows blueprints of the house Baba built.

Verdict: This won't be an instant popular bestseller, but every child and adult who pulls it off the shelf, intrigued by the elaborate cover, will be drawn into the story and memories and will leave the book a little richer in mind than they came to it.

ISBN: 978-0316076289; Published October 2011 by Little, Brown; Borrowed from the library

Henrietta King: Loving the Land by Mary Dodson Wade, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

Short, clipped sentences briefly tell the story of Henrietta King, wife of rancher Richard King, who eventually ran the ranch after his death. Oil paintings illustrate the various events in Henrietta King's life.

I didn't feel the story really explained who Henrietta King was; it mentioned frequently that she "loved the land" but didn't say why or what she did that showed it. It says "she used her money to do good things" but the section at the end simply says "Henrietta gave land and money for hospitals, schools, and a railroad. She took care of the people who worked for her. She gave land to build the new town of Kingsville and owned many companies there." The book talks about her wealth and the land she owned, but says her son-in-law, Robert Kleburg, actually ran the ranch.

A timeline, glossary, and further resources are included.

Verdict: This book could supplement a unit on Texas history and Henrietta King, but on its own the lack of information is frustrating and the short, bland sentences are not interesting, although the lush oil paintings are beautiful.

ISBN: 978-1-933979-64-9; Published September 2011 by Bright Sky Press; Review copy provided by publisher

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