These artists aren’t world-famous, but each contributed to the world of art in a unique way:
Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Benny Andrews. Published by Clarion Books.
Born to sharecropper parents in Georgia, Benny Andrews was an artist, teacher, and advocate for artists of color. He started a prison art program and traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to teach art to kids there. His paintings are used to illustrate the book.
Funny Bones: Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh. Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Jose Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican printer and political cartoonist who became best-known for his prints of Calaveras (skeletons) to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. The book speculates on the meanings of some of the more enigmatic prints and shows the techniques Posada used to create his art.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph. Published by Albert Whitman and Company.
Growing up in 1920’s Kansas City, Gordon Parks was told he’d be a porter or a waiter. He did work as a waiter, but buying a $7.50 camera changed his life. He went on to work for magazines like Life and Vogue, using his photography to work for human rights, and directed the movie Shaft.
Published by Candlewick Press
Summary: The sun is the star of this book as it travels around the world while Coco is asleep. It travels through frozen forests, across the desert, and over the mountains. The sun is playful, joining with the wind to blow off a fisherman’s cap. It’s patient, as it waits outside a window to be let in. Finally, it barges through Coco’s window. After rushing around the world, the sun has time to spend the day playing with Coco out in the snow. Ages 4-6.
Pros: This is a great introduction to the concept of time zones, with the sun rising in different places on earth at different times. The watercolor illustrations beautifully capture sunrise in a wide variety of environments.
Cons: It seems to be cold and snowy in every place on earth.
Published by Henry Holt
Summary: Emily’s parents have a plan to live in all 50 states, and this year’s move is to California. Emily has learned not to put down roots, knowing that she’ll have to move again before long. In spite of her resolve, she finds herself in a friendship with her neighbor James, who shares her love of books and puzzles. She introduces him to Book Scavenger, the online book treasure hunting game created by San Francisco publisher Garrison Griswold. About the time of her move, Griswold is shot in a BART subway station. Soon after, Emily and James find a mysterious copy of The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, and soon discover it’s the first clue in a new game Griswold was about to debut when he was attacked. As the publisher’s life hangs in the balance, Emily and James race to solve the Poe puzzles before Griswold’s enemy can discover the whereabouts of his book. Grades 4-7.
Pros: A fast-paced mystery for fans of ciphers, codes, and puzzles. Emily and James are endearing characters, and there are a couple of interesting subplots about Emily’s family’s unusual goal to live in all the states, and a rivalry between James and a fellow cipher fan.
Cons: At 343 pages, the intricate plot occasionally becomes a bit unwieldy.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Summary: Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Robbie Robertson teams up with Caldecott honor winner David Shannon to tell the story of how the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy was formed. On page one, Hiawatha’s entire family has been killed, and his village burned to the ground. In the midst of his despair, the Peacemaker approaches him, paddling a mysterious stone canoe, and invites Hiawatha to join him on a mission of peace. The Peacemaker brings a message of forgiveness and peace to the Iroquois nations, but his voice is soft and he speaks with a stutter. He needs Hiawatha’s powerful speaking abilities to convince the nations to stop their fighting. Finally, everyone has joined together except the Mohawk, led by the evil Chief Tadodaho. Tadodaho is the one responsible for the destruction of Hiawatha’s village. Hiawatha must look deep within himself to find the forgiveness that is the only way to bring peace to the entire Iroquois nation. Includes an historical note that tells the history behind this story and an author’s note that adds the personal tale of how Robertson came to write this book. Grades 3-8.
Pros: David Shannon’s beautiful paintings illustrate this fascinating blend of history, folklore, and mythology. Take some time to appreciate the details of the story which has timely messages about peace and forgiveness.
Cons: I found the story confusing until I read the historical note. Some sources recommend this book for ages 4-8, but I don’t think audiences much younger than ten would fully appreciate it.
Published by Chronicle Books
Summary: Each two-page spread features a creature from the files of cryptozoology (creatures rumored to exist, but never scientifically documented). The actual animal isn’t shown in full, just a part or hint of it, with a report of a sighting in the form of a poem. For instance, Bigfoot’s entry includes a milk carton with this verse: “Missing/Last seen: walking in the forest/Height and weight: much more than you/Gender: unknown/Hair: all over/Shoe size (Rumored): 92”. The first page tells about cryptozoology, and the endpapers include a list of all the creatures in the book with a brief description of each. Grades 2-6.
Pros: This is one clever book, and the topic is sure to be popular with young readers, who will want to spend some time studying the illustrations. A fun and easy introduction to poetry by two former children’s poet laureates.
Cons: If you get this book out of the library (which you should), the creatures’ descriptions on the endpapers will most likely be partially covered by a taped-down book jacket.
Published by Holiday House
Summary: The cover of this book will undoubtedly scare off some potential readers. And that’s kind of the point of this book…to debunk the myths that spiders are scary and dangerous. Sure they have fangs and venom, but most of them are pretty harmless to humans and they do some darn interesting things, the most famous of which is spinning amazing webs from a material that is strong, tough, flexible, lightweight, hypoallergenic, and totally biodegradable. Ten unusual spiders are profiled, all with amazing photomicrographs of various parts of the spiders that have been brilliantly colored to make them stand out. Back matter includes information on how to identify spiders, additional resources, and a pretty extensive glossary and index. Grades 3-6.
Pros: There’s a lot of great information that might make an arachnophobia sufferer see spiders in a much more positive light. The pictures are super cool; spider fans will enjoy seeing the amazing details of various arachnid body parts.
Cons: I would have liked to learn more about the photography process used. I was unfamiliar with the word “photomicrograph” and finally found a brief paragraph about this process under the copyright information. It didn’t completely satisfy my curiosity, though, and made no mention of the brilliant colors used.
Published by Worzalla Books
Summary: Detective Wilcox and Captain Griswold call themselves the MFIs, Missing Food Investigators. As mice working on a farm with over 100 hungry animals, they have plenty to do. In this story, they’re called by Miss Rabbit to investigate the disappearance of her carrot cake. After interviewing a number of suspects (Fowler the Owl, Porcini the Pig, and Hot Dog the Dog), they get the brilliant idea to plant a new carrot cake in Miss Rabbit’s kitchen, then set up a camera to record what happens. After a couple of hours, the cake disappears and the film reveals the surprising culprit. Grades 1-3.
Pros: At 37 pages, this would make a perfect book for kids just transitioning from easy readers to chapter books. There’s plenty of humor in both the text and the illustrations, and the action moves along swiftly. Includes a carrot cake recipe at the end.
Cons: The recipe requires four bowls, which is three too many for my culinary abilities.
Kids of all ages are endlessly fascinated by animals. Animal books are often the first informational text children read. Here are some of the best so far this year:
Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor. Published by Charlesbridge.
The exciting true story of a humpback whale rescue off the coast of California. Beautifully illustrated.
The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin. Published by Henry Holt and Company.
Which ocean animal is the most amazing? A variety of creatures make compelling arguments about why they deserve the honor.
Hippos Are Huge by Jonathan London, illustrated by Matthew Trueman. Published by Candlewick.
Hippos ARE huge…and dangerous. In fact, they’re the most dangerous animal in Africa. This book is jam packed with fascinating information about them, with illustrations kids will love.
Emu by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Grahame Byrne. Published by Candlewick.Another fascinating Australian animal book from the author/illustrator team that brought you last year’s Big Red Kangaroo.
Published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Summary: It’s autumn, and the narrator fills up her leaf book with specimens she finds around her. She sees leaves that look like fans, stars, and hearts. Some are red, some orange, yellow, or violet. Pages alternate between bright trees with simple shapes on them and close-ups of more accurate renditions of the different types of leaves; these pages have a fact or two about trees and leaves. The last page gives directions for leaf prints and leaf rubbings. Ages 3-7.
Pros: A good introduction to different types of leaves. Young kids will be inspired to get outside and see if they can find leaves that match the ones in the illustrations.
Cons: Yet another tiny font, this time for the facts about leaves. And, editors, yellow print on an orange background? No.
Published by Scholastic
Summary: When Gerta is 8, her father and brother Dominic go to West Berlin to look for work, preparing to move there from the east. While they’re gone, the Berlin wall goes up overnight. Four years later, she spots the two of them on an observation platform on the western side of the wall. Her father seems to be pantomiming for her to dig. When he manages to smuggle her a picture of a building, Gerta is sure he means for her and her other brother Fritz to start there and tunnel an escape route through the wall. As they work on their tunnel, their neighbors and friends grow more and more suspicious, and before long, completing it has become a life-and-death proposition. Grades 5-8.
Pros: An eye-opening story of life behind the Iron Curtain during the early 1960’s, with danger lurking everywhere for Gerta and her family, resulting in an exciting story from start to finish.
Cons: The page-turning suspense was so intense that I almost booked a cardiologist appointment before I was done.