Have You Heard About Lady Bird? Poems About Our First Ladies by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Published by Disney-Hyperion

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Summary:  As she did for the Presidents in Rutherford B., Who Was He?, Marilyn Singer has written a poem for every First Lady from Martha Washington (“‘Lady Presidentess,’ dear wife of our first leader,/did not bemoan, she set the tone,/for all who would succeed her”) to Melania Trump (“She learned languages, changed her name,/married into fortune, embraced new fame”).  Each is accompanied by a picture of the First Lady in some scene from her term. Includes a page on “Being the First Lady”, several pages of thumbnail portraits and brief profiles of each woman, and a list of sources for additional information. 56 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  These easily accessible poems are a fun way to introduce kids to the wide variety of women who have served as First Lady, and the way the job has changed over time.

Cons:  Some of the poems about the less well-known First Ladies may be a little confusing to kids without any background knowledge.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lynn Fulton, illustrated by Felicita Sala

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  On a dark and stormy night two hundred years ago, young Mary sat in her room trying to think of a story.  Downstairs, she could hear her friends Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (soon to be her husband) talking about their own stories.  The group had decided to have a contest to see who could write the best ghost story in a week, and the deadline was approaching.  Finally, Mary went to bed, but in her dreams, she saw a huge creature lying on a table, with a terrified young student shrinking away from him.  Mary knew the young man had brought this being to life. Jolted awake, heart pounding, she realized she finally had an idea for her story. Includes an author’s note about Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein, with additional information about Mary and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who is referenced in the book.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  The writing and illustrations create a deliciously creepy feeling as readers learn about the history behind Mary’s famous book.  This would be an excellent supplement to anyone reading Frankenstein.

Cons:  This is a somewhat fictionalized account (the author’s note tells the parts she took some liberties with) and not really a biography, since it only covers a single episode in Mary Shelley’s life.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Picturing America: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Art by Hudson Talbott

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Thomas Cole loved nature and drawing from the time he was a little boy growing up in the English countryside.  When the Industrial Revolution hit, his family fell on hard times and decide to emigrate to America. The family settled first in Ohio, then Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until they moved to New York that Thomas’s luck began to change.  A merchant named Thomas Bruen admired Cole’s landscape paintings and financed a trip up the Hudson.  Cole’s paintings of the wilderness there brought him fame and fortune, enough to support him on a three-year visit to Europe. He was particularly fascinated by the ruins in Rome, and painted a series of landscapes depicting a society moving from wilderness to civilization and back again.  He returned to the U.S., where he married and settled in the Catskills, living and working there until his death at the age of 47. His style, known as the Hudson River school of art, was the first American art movement, and influenced many other American artists for generations. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This straightforward biography is illuminated with many of Cole’s paintings, showcasing an important early American artist.

Cons:  A timeline would have been useful, since only one date is given in the text (1818, the year the Coles came to the U.S.).

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Former U.S. Poet Laureate tells the story of his life in a poem inviting readers to imagine his past and their own futures.  Starting off as a little boy who loved nature (“If I picked chamomile flowers as a child/in the windy fields and whispered/to their fuzzy faces,/imagine”), he shows his life as a child of migrant farm workers, having to repeatedly leave his home and friends, and going to school not knowing any English.  He loved his new language, using it to write poetry, then learning music so he could turn his poems into songs. Each sentence ends with the word “imagine”. He concludes: “If I stood up/wearing a robe/in front of my familia and many more/on the high steps/of the Library of Congress/in Washington, D.C., and/read out loud and signed/my poetry book/like this–/Poet Laureate of the United States of America/Imagine what you could do.”  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  This picture book-length poem allows Herrera to tell his own amazing story as well as to inspire kids to follow their own dreams.

Cons:  I almost cried when I got to the end and there was no author’s note or biography to give more information about Herrera.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

What Do You Do With A Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Published by Beach Lane Books

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Summary:  From an early age, Barbara Jordan had a powerful voice.  As she grew up, she had to figure out how she would use it: as a teacher?  A preacher? Finally, she decided to become a lawyer. But the work bored her.  She moved into politics, instead–or at least she tried to. It took three attempts, but she finally won a seat in the Texas Senate.  From there, her voice took her to the U.S. Congress. She used that voice to speak out against Nixon in 1974. Barbara’s star was rising, but, unknown to the public, she suffered from multiple sclerosis.  She retired from Congress in 1979 and moved back home, where she taught at the University of Texas. Jordan died in 1996, but her legacy lives on through her former students. Includes an author’s note, timeline, and additional sources.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  One huge benefit of doing this blog has been learning about so many inspiring people whom I have heard of but didn’t really know much about.  Here is a perfect example, and it is beautifully and imaginatively illustrated by Caldecott honoree Ekua Holmes.

Cons:  Too bad Barbara Jordan isn’t still around to lend her inspiring voice to the current political discourse.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Starstruck: The Cosmic Journey of Neil DeGrasse Tyson by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Growing up in the Bronx, young Neil DeGrasse Tyson only saw a few stars in the night sky.  He couldn’t believe his eyes when he visited the Hayden Planetarium at age 9 and saw how many stars were really there.  From that time on, Neil was fascinated by astronomy. His parents supported him, buying him a telescope and books, and a sixth-grade teacher suggested he take an advanced class at the planetarium.  He went on to the Bronx High School of Science and Harvard, where he learned all he could about science, while also enjoying dancing and wrestling. Eventually, he wound up back at the Hayden Planetarium as a director, and has become a voice for science, appearing on TV and writing books and tweets to share his enthusiasm.  In life and in the universe, says Tyson, “It’s always best to keep looking up.” Includes an authors’ note and sources.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The authors show how Tyson turned his passion into a rewarding career through hard work and determination.  The illustrations capture his energy, as well as the beautiful night sky.

Cons:  I often see books like this recommended for grades K-3 (all the reviews I looked at, as well as Amazon, had that range for their recommendations).  I find picture book biographies are appreciated by upper elementary and middle school students even more than the younger ones.

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Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation adapted by Ari Folman, illustrations by David Polonsky

Published by Pantheon

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Summary:  In his adaptor’s note, Ari Folman describes how he was approached by the Anne Frank Fonds (Foundation) to create an animated film for children as well as a graphic novel based on Anne’s life.  He estimated that turning the entire diary into a graphic novel would have taken about ten years and resulted in 3500 pages. Instead, he took the essence of Anne’s diary, beginning shortly before she and her family went into hiding and continuing until her last entry before all the members of The Secret Annex were arrested in August 1944.  Although life in the annex was extremely stressful–not only was it a matter of life and death to stay hidden, but day-to-day life was monotonous, there were plenty of squabbles among the eight people, and the food situation grew increasingly worse–Anne manages to find a great deal of humor and insight as she observes her family, the van Daans, and Albert Dussel. The afterword, as ever, is heartbreaking, as the reader learns of the tragic deaths of Anne, her mother and sister, Dussel, and the Van Daans, and of Otto Frank’s discovery and publication of her diary.  160 pages.

Pros:  I was skeptical about how Anne’s diary would translate into a graphic novel, but both the adapter and the illustrator have done a truly amazing job.  Despite the grim topic, there is a lot of levity in both the text and illustrations, and the approximately 5% of the original document that is shown here really captures Anne’s voice and spirit.

Cons:  It’s hard to recommend this for an age group; it really depends on individual readers.  Of course, there is the whole Holocaust topic that is the backdrop for the entire book. In addition, there are more sexual references than I remembered from my original high school reading, including a detailed description by Anne of female genitalia that I was pretty surprised to have forgotten.  Turns out that passage was edited out of many diary editions, including the one I previously read, but it is here, with illustrations, in this one.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.