Summary: Manon Rhéaume grew up playing backyard hockey with her brothers in Quebec. When she was five, her dad recruited her to be goalie on the team he coached. She did well and continued to push herself to succeed, becoming the first girl to play in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament at age 11. At the age of 20, she was invited to participate in a training camp for the new Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. She worked hard enough and played well enough to get to play in a couple of preseason games in 1992 and 1993, and remains the only woman to have played in a game in any of the four major North American sports leagues. Includes an afterword by Manon Rhéaume, a timeline, and fun facts about Manon. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: Here in New England, one can never have enough hockey books in the library, and hockey books about women are rare indeed. This one has a very complete story and large colorful illustrations that will appeal to kids in all elementary grades.
Cons: It wasn’t clear from the story or the afterword how much Manon had played in the NHL. I had to go to the timeline for my answer (two preseason games).
Summary: Emily Dickinson’s life story is told from beginning to end, with her poetry woven into almost every page. Her internal life is explored, how she loved books and sought answers when confronted with deaths of people near her. As she grew older, she withdrew more, focusing on her writing and only interacting with a few people who were close to her. Following her death in 1886, her sister Vinnie found hundreds of poems tucked away around her house, and the world began to discover the poet Emily Dickinson. Includes additional information about Emily’s poetry; how to discover the world of poetry; a few books by and about Emily; and notes from the author and illustrator. 52 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This gorgeously illustrated biography is an excellent introduction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and gives readers some glimpses into Dickinson’s life and why she chose to live the way she did. The back matter provides additional inspiration for aspiring poets.
Cons: As someone who has wished for a good elementary biography of Emily Dickinson (she’s a hot topic for third graders when they get to their unit on famous Massachusetts people), I was disappointed that this book didn’t include much of the factual biographical information (when she was born, where she lived, etc.) that kids are seeking for reports. A timeline would have been helpful and not taken away from the lyrical nature of the writing.
Summary: Growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Elgin Baylor didn’t have much opportunity to learn how to play basketball. So he taught himself. When he got to high school and college, coaches were amazed at his style of play, so different from what they were accustomed to. In 1958, Elgin was drafted by the Minnesota Lakers. His pro ball career coincided with events in the civil rights movement. Elgin himself took a stand after experiencing discrimination at hotels and restaurants when his team played in West Virginia. He refused to suit up with the team, disappointing fans who had come to see him play, but using his status to make a statement. A few weeks later, the NBA commissioner ruled that teams would no longer stay in hotels or eat in restaurants that practiced discrimination. The following year, in 1959, Elgin was chosen as NBA Rookie of the Year. Includes an author’s note describing how Elgin Baylor changed basketball and influenced players like Julius Irving, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James, as well as a list of additional resources, and a timeline of both Baylor’s life and events in the civil rights movement. 40 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: Basketball fans will enjoy this look at a lesser-known player who changed the game and influenced some other players they may have heard of. Frank Morrison’s action-shot illustrations are amazing and should be looked at by the Coretta Scott King and/or Caldecott committees.
Cons: Some sources recommend this book for preschoolers or kindergarteners, but with the civil rights events woven in and extensive back matter, it’s a better book for older elementary kids.
Published by Jimmy Patterson Books (Little, Brown)
Summary: Round One: Cassius Clay’s friend Lucky and the rest of Cassius’s friends and family are awaiting the results of the 1958 Golden Gloves championship. 16-year-old Cassius is in Chicago, 300 miles from his home in Louisville, KY. The phone rings, and the story shifts to Cassius’s voice, told in verse. Clay didn’t win that championship, but he relates how he got there: the friends and relatives who influenced him, the events that led him to boxing, the unflagging discipline and confidence that helped him in his training. By the time we get to Round Nine, Cassius is ready to return to the Golden Gloves competition and become a champion. Lucky introduces each round, then finishes with a Final Round, in which he tells what happened to Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, during the rest of his career. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Apparently, Kwame Alexander has been a Muhammad Ali fan since he read Ali’s autobiography as a kid, and he uses his considerable poetic talents to bring the boxer life. I wasn’t sure I liked Lucky’s prose sections at first, but they did flesh out the story, setting up the action for the poetry parts. This is sure to be an enormously popular choice for kids.
Cons: I’m curious about the collaboration James Patterson, who seems more like a brand than an actual author these days. I would have preferred this to be the sole work of Kwame Alexander, whom I’m sure could have pulled it off without any help.
Summary: In 1973, a girl in her Paris home dreams about going somewhere else. One day she packs up her motorcycle (her packing list includes tools, a sleeping bag, cookware, and a pretty white dress), and heads to Canada (she flies; it’s not clear how the motorcycle gets there). She travels on her motorcycle from Montreal to Alaska, then flies to Japan. From there, it’s on to a number of Asian countries, then back into Europe: Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and finally, home to France. She has become the first woman to travel around the world by motorcycle. Includes additional information and photos about Anne-France Dautheville, the Frenchwoman on whom this story is based, and an author’s note. 48 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: A fun, true story that may inspire others to lead a more adventurous life. The illustrations are full of interesting details and lists like “How to drink tea in India” and “How to make a fire”. The information at the end will answer many of the questions about the real-life woman who made this journey.
Cons: I was surprised there was no map anywhere showing Dautheville’s route.
Summary: Marietta Barovier grew up in fifteenth-century Murano, an island near Venice, where her father and brothers worked as glassblowers. She wanted to learn the craft, but it wasn’t something girls did. She persisted, though, hanging around the shop, and finally her father showed her how. One day, she and her father took a trip to Venice to visit a wealthy patron. Marietta discovered a small glass bowl covered with flowers, and was told that the technique for making such glass had been lost. Years later, she remembered the bowl when she tried a new technique, layering different colors of glass together to make beads. These rosetta beads became valuable currency and spread throughout the world. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Barovier and her beads, and a note about the art. 48 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Evan Turk’s dazzling illustrations were inspired by Renaissance and Impressionist artists, with hues of yellow, gold, and orange that capture the fiery heat of glassblowing and the light and energy of Venice. The story of Marietta is fascinating (although slightly fictionalized, since records about her are sparse), and could make a nice addition to an art curriculum.
Cons: Although there are a couple photos of Evan Turk learning to blow glass and sketching in Italy, I would have liked to have seen some of the beads.
Summary: Peter was born to a wealthy family in Berlin, German in 1930. All that changed when Hitler rose to power, and his Jewish family had to escape, first to Belgium, and then to France. In the summer of 1942, Peter’s parents sent him to summer camp. While he was there, they were arrested and taken away. He got two postcards from them, then never heard from them again. He spent the next two years living in children’s homes and a boarding school, using his German language skills to spy on the Nazis. When rumors started circulating that the Germans knew one of the school’s students was a spy, a group of French resistance fighters arranged for Peter’s escape. On May 22, 1944, he managed to cross the border into Switzerland, where he spent the next two years before joining his aunt and grandmother in the U.S. Includes an epilogue with photos; notes with additional information about each two-page spread; a bibliography, and an index. 40 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: A good choice for upper elementary students interested in the Holocaust and World War II history. Although it’s revealed in the epilogue that Peter’s parents both died in Auschwitz, the focus of the narrative is mostly on Peter’s courage and survival skills. The extensive bibliography will guide readers to more resources, and the book list gives recommendations for appropriate age groups for each.
Cons: The story was so brief that I felt like I never really got to know Peter or any of his family members. Half the book is back matter, so Peter’s story, covering over a decade, is told in 20 illustrated pages.
Summary: Growing up in Chicago, Edward Gorey was an avid reader, enjoying books as different from each other as Alice In Wonderland and Dracula. A solitary child who skipped three grades and moved a dozen times, he loved passing hours writing and drawing. After a stint in the army and four years at Harvard, Edward moved to New York City where he worked in the art department of a publisher. After work, he wrote his own stories filled with ghastly silliness. A group of mothers found his book The Beastly Baby so disturbing that they ripped it up and mailed the pieces to him. But Edward was rarely influenced by what other people thought, and went his own way to achieve his own form of success. Includes an author’s note with additional information, a photo, and additional sources of information. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: Any fan of Edward Gorey’s work will appreciate this homage, written and illustrated in a very similar style. Try introducing Gorey to young Lemony Snicket fans.
Cons: Those not familiar with Gorey’s works, including most of today’s kids, may not fully appreciate this book.
Summary: Aesop was born a slave in ancient Greece over 2000 years ago. He learned that speaking out could be dangerous in his position, so he learned to talk in code, telling stories about the powerless and the powerful through his fables. Following an introduction to Aesop’s life, the book presents ten fables. Each telling is only a few paragraphs, with an illustration or two, and the moral in gold type at the end. The final few pages recount how Aesop was freed, and how his fables were told for many years before they were finally published in book form. Includes an afterword that explains more about what we do and don’t know about Aesop and which parts of his story in this book are true; also, a bibliography. 64 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: An excellent introduction to Aesop’s fables, giving some context about how they are not only lessons about morality, but give advice on “how to survive in a world in which some have power and some do not.” Caldecott honoree Pamela Zagarenski will surely get some additional consideration for her beautiful illustrations here.
Cons: I would have preferred that the afterword were a foreword, so readers would be aware of the uncertainties around Aesop’s history before reading the pages about his life.
Summary: Although we often learn about violent events in history (wars, assassinations), history is often made by those who embrace nonviolence. Hasak-Lowy makes a distinction between institutional activism–writing letters and editorials, circulating petitions, lobbying politicians–and nonviolent activism, which “employs disruptive, risky tactics that challenge those in power and interrupt the way things normally work.” He illustrates this with chapters on Gandhi, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Václav Havel. The final chapter is about Greta Thunberg and her current nonviolent activism around climate change. A list at the end gives brief descriptions of half a dozen other groups that successfully employed nonviolent activism. Includes notes, a seven-page bibliography, and an index. 320 pages; grades 5-9.
Pros: An excellent, accessible, and inspiring introduction to nonviolent activism. I found it fascinating to learn the distinctions between institutional and nonviolent activism. The engagingly-written profiles demonstrate the commitment and sacrifices necessary for this type of activism–but also show how effective it ultimately can be.
Cons: No mention of Henry David “Mr. Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, who is said to have inspired both Gandhi and King.