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The Best So Far: 2019 Picture Book Biographies Done Exceedingly Well

How have I not done this round-up yet?!? It’s baffling that I’ve waited this long, particularly when you take into account the sheer overwhelming number of picture book bios of exceeding beauty and charm we’ve been privy to in 2019. Ye gods, readers, they boggle the mind! Here’s an indication of how many are out right now: I’m going to do a very long post of my favorites and I’ll bet you anything that I won’t mention one of the ones you’ve seen that you’ve adored. That’s how many there are. There is, for the first time in a long time, ample room for dissent.

Here then, are some of the titles that have caught my eye (so far) this year:

Magnificent 2019 Picture Book Biographies

The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow, ill. Steven Salerno

A little unfair to begin with a book I’ve already reviewed, but since we’re going alphabetically by title it couldn’t be helped. What were the odds that I’d go goofy over the biography of the guy who invented the Crayola crayon? Shouldn’t this book just read like a great big advertisement for Crayola? There’s a bit of that, but this Natascha Biebow lady KNOWS how to pen a really good picture book biography. I loved the little inserted facts in boxes on the sides. I loved how she was able to make the story fun and fabulous without fake quotations. And the Backmatter, oh the Backmatter! Gorgeous full-color photographs of the process (which gave me flashbacks to old Mr. Rogers episodes), a one-page author bio, and the MOST impressive Bibliography I’ve seen in any picture book this year. Can’t believe that this is Beibow’s first nonfiction picture book. Clearly we need to hook her into doing more.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, ill. Rafael López

Has any president ever elicited as much pity for his misery as Lincoln? This year alone we’ve seen this book and Robert Burleigh’s O Captain, My Captain, both of which give good voice to Lincoln’s sad sad countenance. Engle and López  were last seen pairing together on a different (and award winning) picture book biography, Drum Dream Girl. Now they highlight another female Latinx musician, this time from Venezuela. It’s pretty cool, though even cooler is the info at the end that she went on to tour Europe, marry four times, and pretty much kick ass and take names. 

Elvis is King! by Jonah Winter, ill. Red Nose Studio

There are some nonfiction topics that look simple on the outside and are amazing complex inside. Jonah Winter’s no newbie to the nonfiction picture book game. The man’s been in the business for years, and the books vary wildly. When I heard he was doing Elvis, though, I was worried for him. Why? Because in Elvis you have a difficult subject. On the one hand his is a very inspirational story. Poor, shy, Southern boy becomes “The King” through talent. Inspires lots of kids. What’s not to love? But then there’s the whole aspect of how he took his style and songs from the Black community. Does Winter address this? He does! Both in the text of the book and, with a lot more detail, in the back. He says it straight out, “Sam Phillips of Sun Records, absolutely was looking for a white musician to play ‘black music’ for white teenagers… Elvis gave Phillips exactly what he was looking for.” In the meantime, Red Nose Studio might have just done more work on this book than I’ve ever seen before. I was just looking at the image of Elvis’s mama in the hardware store and the crammed shelves are worth a Caldecott alone. It won’t get a Caldecott, of course. Models never do. But it would deserve it just the same.

Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson by Jen Bryant, ill. Cannaday Chapman

Can I say how much I love it that Jen Bryant selected Wilson as the next subject worthy of biography? In the name of full-disclosure, when I lived in New York I would get season passes to August Wilson plays (don’t ask me to choose a favorite). The challenge with this book was for Bryant to be honest about his life (it shows him dropping out of school multiple times) while also explaining why he made the choices he did (this is a really good book at showing how racism can be ingrained in a system). It’s also a tale about how a person becomes a writer. The key line in this book is when Wilson is talking early on to playwright Rob Penny and asks how you make your characters talk. “Oh, you don’t – you listen to them,” is the answer. The whole book is about that listening. It’s also chock full of invented dialogue, which makes sense considering Wilson’s ear for it. Makes it hard to catalog but a joy to read. I’ll be putting this on my “Fictionalized Nonfiction” list come December, but today I’m giving it the all clear, after a fashion.

A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toopakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord, ill. Shehzil Malik

Winner of the Best Picture Book Biography Subtitle of 2019 Award (or at least it should be). I’ll admit, I was highly intrigued by this book. It follows much in the footsteps of picture book biographies of Malala, but there is SUCH a strong sports focus here. Every year I find it hard to find any books at all that talk about sports in a fun, original way. So thumbs up on the story and the art, but it’s actually the sports connection that’s the real lure for me.

Hello, Crochet Friends! by Jonah Larson with Jennifer Larson

Adopted from Ethiopia, Jonah had a hard time concentrating in school. So when his 5th grade teacher suggested he bring in his crochet work, which always calms him down, it led to an amazing transformation. On first glance this looks like it’s just a crafting book of some sort. Delve a little deeper, though, and you see how it’s actually a rather fascinating story about how crochet took a kid from a form of ADD to quiet contemplation. As one patron (who wanted to check this book out when I was preparing to write this up) put it, “It’s a crafting fidget spinner!”

I Am Billie Jean King by Brad Meltzer, ill. Christopher Eliopoulos

Withhold your sneers, friends! Withhold your judgement. Yes, this is yet another entry in the Meltzer/Eliopoulos juggernaut that is the “Ordinary People Change the World” series. But let me draw your attention to a couple facts going on here. Right off the bat, as far as I can ascertain, this is the first Billie Jean King picture book biography from a major publisher to be released (this came out February 5th while Mara Rockliff’s Billie Jean! How Tennis Star Billie Jean King Changed Women’s Sports isn’t out until late August). Think about that a little. The first picture book biography of the woman and it was part of a series. How did it take this long? And why is this one so good? Because crazy as it sounds, this is a really smart take on the woman’s life. It might even be my favorite Meltzer has done to date. Strange, no?

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett, ill. Sarah Jacoby

I have a complicated relationship with this book. One of the things I like about it is that it cannot be denied that it’s a beautiful example of how to write a biography. Brown is presented here as a kind of Amélie of children’s literature. She sells a book and then fills her house with a whole cart’s worth of flowers. She lives on a cliff, is inventive with picture books, has tea on library steps, dies doing the can-can, what’s not to love? And yes, Anne Carroll Moore is set up as the child-shushing, bun-in-the-hair, killjoy librarian. A stereotype with an extra added creepy wooden doll for a twist. I wrote about the complicated legacy of ACM here this year, but (as I say there) even though she’s the baddie there’s much to parse in this bio and it is well done. A complex but never dull book.

It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear, ill. Julie Morstad

Defying the odds wasn’t just something Gyo Fujikawa did once in a while. This children’s book artist did it her whole life. A stunning encapsulation of the Japanese-American woman who fought racism, sexism, and more through the power of her art. Don’t mind me. I’m just going to raid the children’s room for every book by Gyo Fujikawa now that I know who she was and what she accomplished in her life. It presents an artist (who also worked for Disney) in the context of her day, and through Gyo’s story we learn about the Japanese internment camps (that image of her mom burning her possessions is amazing), WWII prejudice against Asian-Americans, sexism, and even racism in the publishing industry. Maclear uses Gyo’s life as a template for the wider world, but never loses focus. The premise is that this person is extraordinary, and the text bears that out.

Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines by Sarah Aronson, ill. Robert Neubecker

Two years ago my family bought a Rube Goldberg calendar and my daughter hasn’t stopped talking about it since. I was so pleased with the look, the feel, and the telling of this tale. I adored the endpapers! Beautifully rendered and a wonderful encapsulation. Plus, Neubecker clearly put his heart and soul into the art.

Let ‘er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, ill. Gordon C. James

Who can resist Gordon C. James’ thick, vibrant paints? This is a far cry from his debut multiple award-winning picture book Crown, but in a good way. Nelson focuses on a honest-to-goodness cowboy. Specifically, at one particular Saddle Bronc Championship, which is a nice way of focusing his story. Also, check out that first page for the right way to begin a picture book biography. Full-page, black and white, engaging, enticing, exciting.

Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang, ill. Kana Urbanowicz

After the devastation of WWII, Momofuku Ando became obsessed with the notion of creating cheap, delicious, nutritious food for the poor. Behold! The birth of ramen as we know and love it today! See, this is why I love nonfiction so freaking much. Books like this one. They take a subject that I’m not particularly interested in (the invention of ramen) and make it FASCINATING. It grabbed me right at the title page, where you see this devastated post-WWII Japan, just leveled and crumbling. The story is incredibly fun, vibrant, and written so well. Did I mention I love this? I love this!!! 

Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch, ill. Teresa Martínez

What do you do when you can see a looming disaster that could wipe out all life on earth and nobody will listen to you? A stellar bio of Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina, who discovered the dangers of CFCs. This is the book that dropped David Diaz as its illustrator when the #MeToo stuff about him broke. And you know what? I think I like the art by Martínez more than I did the art by Diaz. One reason might be the fact that Diaz is all about otherworldly looks and Martínez is all about emotion. You actually like Mario quite a lot in this version. You feel for the guy. I just felt more tied into the material and his struggles to get the world to listen to something they didn’t want to hear. It’s also realistic while remaining hopeful. Mario says that now he’s looking to warn the world about global warming, and you are left hoping that maybe  he’ll succeed. There is some fake dialogue in the front but the author addresses this, saying it came straight from interviews from Mario himself, so I think that covers her bases. Worthy, necessary stuff. 

Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington by Michelle Markel, ill. Amanda Hall

Markel and Hall paired previously on a picture book biography of Henri Rousseau that I adored (The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau), so I was predisposed to like this one. It most certainly doesn’t disappoint. First off, I didn’t even know there was a female surrealist painter. After reading this book I immediately set off to find out more about her. Second, Markel plays fair with the text and Hall does a marvelous job of invoking Carrington’s art without copying it, which is a difficult trick. It’d call this one a stellar bio of a little known name.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, ill. Tonya Engel

It isn’t enough for the subject of a book to be interesting or even to have had an interesting life. In every picture book biography the story needs a hook. Something you can grab onto, that takes that person and that life and makes it more than just a rote set of facts. You have to be emotionally engaged with the material. Now I had to wonder, walking into a biography of Maya Angelou, how the author was going to handle the sexual abuse. Would she shy away from it or face it head on? I think the balance found here is extraordinary. It’s presented in such a way where it’s appropriate for younger kids, but for those who are older there’s backmatter that contains websites “for those who may be affected or wish to support someone affected by sexual violence.” There’s also an impressive Bibliography and (my favorite) a place that lists where all the quotation sources come from. Oh. And did I mention that the art is AMAZING? Who is this Tonya Engel and how can we see more of her work?

Thurgood by Jonah Winter, ill. Bryan Collier

Can one person change the law of the land? Thurgood Marshall could. Just a normal kid from a middle class family, Thurgood was the kind of guy who saw injustice and worked to stamp it out. Now his life comes to vibrant life thanks to the expert collage art of Bryan Collier. This is the second Jonah Winter book on this list, but don’t ask me to choose between them. Collier’s style is on point here, doing the source material justice. I would, however, like to get a lot more information on how, exactly, 6-year-old Marshall convinced his parents to legally change his name to “Thurgood”. That is one forward thinking kid! 

Two Brothers, Four Hands: The Artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, ill. Hadley Hooper

One was a dedicated, quiet artist determined to make his mark on the world. The other, a vagabond no-goodnik, dedicated to his brother. Together, the Giacometti brothers would revolutionize the art world, but first they had to figure out their own individual styles. Greenberg and Jordan have been working on these kinds of unusual picture book biographies for years. This one is deep and rich, but at its heart it’s about the connection between two brothers who are also artists. One of the things I liked the most about it was how well it shows how no artist knows what they want to do or whom they want to be when they’re starting out. And sometimes it can take decades to find your way. A strangely supportive work of encouragement for young artists everywhere. Oh, and the art is keen.

The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Hero by Joan DiCicco, ill. Ebony Glenn

The son of freed slaves, witness the life of a man who saved lives with his inventions and proved that when it came to obstacles you can always find a way to get around, over, or through them. This is one of those cases where it’s difficult to separate my delight at discovering this historical hero from the presentation of his life. That said, I really found the text and the images of this book to be hugely compelling. DiCicco walks this nice balance between Garrett’s hardships and the sheer coolness of his solutions to problems. You get the distinct impression that the man invented a lot more than is mentioned here. Might be worth checking out that Bibliography. Meanwhile, Glenn’s art is realistic without being (how can I put this?) boring. Sorry, but realistic art is too often dull in picture book bios. This serves the story well and keeps your interest from start to finish. Yep. I’m a fan.

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett, ill. Diana Sudyka

In the 1840s Maria Mitchell was taught to “sweep the sky” using her father’s telescope. Being the first to spot a comet wasn’t in the plan. A marvelously wrought tale, gorgeously rendered, of an early woman scientist. There are a lot of things I like about this book, actually. I like that it’s nonfiction and fun but that the dialogue, when it appears, is in the art and not the text (and sounds like it’s real anyway, but there you go). I like that this is, without a doubt, the best art I’ve seen from Sudyka to date (and she’s an Evanston local like me, so woohoo!). And though this is entirely personal, I like that the heroine is a Quaker. Not a lot of Quaker bios out there for kids. Oh! And did I mention that Barrett is a REALLY good writer? See, this is what I mean when I’m talking about picture book biographies that are above average. Beautifully rendered with excellent writing. Also pairs very well with the fictionalized nonfiction book The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney by Alice B. McGinty, ill. Elizabeth Haidle.

So what do you guys like?

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this enthusiastic reminder of some of the best children’s picture book biographies. Jonah Winter’s two books are terrific. As for your preliminary concerns about his analysis of Elvis, if you look at all his books you will see that he always treats his subject with discernment and insight. So I am not surprised at the quality of both the books you feature here.
    The Gyo Fujikawa tribute is long overdue, and the Maclear-Morstad partnership could not be better.
    I don’t want to belabor the issues raised by the ramen book, since I have already commented, but once you set the context as post-War devastation, it would seem that more accurate historical information is required, since that devastation was caused by the Japanese government. I don’t expect sections on the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March for this age group, but there is an age-appropriate way to offer historical background for the images of poverty and desperation.
    Finally, the Garrett Morgan book looks lovely. As for realistic illustrations being dull, I think that varies. These pictures certainly look anything but dull. There is also an earlier picture book about Morgan, by Monica Kulling and David Parkins, which is also great:
    https://imaginaryelevators.blog/2018/08/22/genius-race-and-saving-lives-garrett-morgans-inventions/

  2. Terry Shay says:

    Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrated by Paola Escobar is my favorite biography this year. The perfect mix of fact and whimsy make it a delight to read.

  3. Hi Betsy Bird,
    Do you know about my book A LIKKLE MISS LOU: How Jamaican Poet Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice? The release date is August 15 and it’s published by Owlkids. Thank for reviewing my 2 of my previous books– MALAIKA’S COSTUME and MALAIKA’S WINTER CARNIVAL. NLH

  4. You asked, “Who is this Tonya Engel and how can we see more of her work?” about the astounding RISE! Illustrraor.

    I had the same question and produced this with Lee & Low! Meet Tonya Engel:
    https://youtu.be/x2g_ioacjLk

  5. Lindsey Dunn says:

    I really loved Sonny’s Bridge by Barry Wittenstein

  6. You’re right! There are so many good bios out now! I love this list! Thanks for sharing. (I have a few more to buy. Waiting for that first fall paycheck!)

  7. You can never have too many books, right??

  8. What an amazing collection! Thanks for highlighting all these amazing stories!

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