Summary: Gino Bartali gained fame in Europe when he won the Tour de France in 1938. So when Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa recruited him to help Jewish families escape the Nazis, Gino was ready. He began cycling all over Italy, delivering fake identity papers to families in hiding. He also used his fame by visiting train stations and distracting autograph-seeking soldiers while families destined for concentration camps were quickly rerouted onto other trains. Forced into the Italian militia, he became a spy who helped rescue English P.O.W.’s. After the war, he went on to win another Tour de France, but never talked about the more than 800 lives he had saved, stating that “Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket.” Includes a timeline, a letter from Bartali’s granddaughter Lisa, an author’s note, and a list of sources. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Another gripping story of a modest World War II hero that would pair nicely with Peter Sis’ Nicky and Vera. The illustrations, which look like vintage posters, add a lot to the story.
Cons: There was very little information on Gino Bartali’s life before or after World War II. Also no photos, so here’s one.
Summary: These two books arrived in the library for me from interlibrary loan land on the same day. Walking Toward Peace is the story of Mildred Lisette Norman, who had a vision of walking across the U.S. advocating for peace in the aftermath of World War II. She changed her name to Peace Pilgrim, and from 1953 until her death in 1981, walked through all 50 states, handing out flyers and talking to people about ending war and living in peace. Remarkably, she never carried any money with her, relying on her knowledge of outdoor living and, to a great extent, the kindness of people she encountered on the road.
Peace draws on Baptiste and Miranda Paul’s experiences growing up in war-torn Mozambique. With simple rhyming text (“Peace is pronouncing your friend’s name correctly/Peace means we talk to each other directly”) and pictures of kids and animals living harmoniously, the book offers concrete actions for fostering peace. The authors’ note explains how war affects not only humans, but animals and the natural world as well. Both books are 40 pages and recommended for ages 4-8.
Pros: I’ve heard about Peace Pilgrim for years, so I was happy to learn about this new book. Her story is sure to intrigue both children and adults, and is a moving testimony to following your own path in life (literally, in her case). Peace would make a great follow-up book to read, with its emphasis on how peace is important to animals as well as humans, something that will resonate with a lot of kids. I loved the simple actions described, and the illustrations, especially the beautiful tree on the endpapers, with the word “peace” written in different languages on its leaves.
Cons: It seems like an ironic bummer that Peace Pilgrim was killed in an accident while riding in a car at the age of 72, and did not live to see the end of the Cold War.
Summary: The first time Patti McGee saw a group of boys on skateboards, she mounted a board on her roller skate wheels, and took off down the tallest hill in her neighborhood. She was hooked, but the wheels kept falling off her board, and a real skateboard was expensive. When she heard about a new skateboarding team starting up, with a free board as part of the deal, she practiced even harder. Making the team inspired her to enter a competition, where she showed off her best trick: a handstand on a moving board that she held for six seconds. Her perfect score won her the championship and launched a skateboarding career. Includes a page answering the question “Where Is She Now?”, an author’s note, a photo of Patty performing her handstand, and a list of sources. 48 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: Patti’s enthusiasm and determination (particularly on the page that shows her applying multiple band-aids to her bleeding arms and legs) will be an inspiration and introduce kids to a little-known sports star.
Summary: When Kate Kaird left Germany for America with her young son Jacob, she couldn’t have imagined what lay in store for her. She soon married John Walker, the keeper of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, and within a year they moved into the lighthouse to live. She spent the next 33 years there, taking over all the duties after John died when their daughter was only three years old. It took four years for her to get the title and salary of permanent lighthouse keeper, securing the job after two men passed it up as being too lonely. Kate kept the light clean and polished, rowed back and forth to Staten Island for visits and supplies, and rescued more than fifty people during her long career. Includes additional information with a photo and a list of sources; endpapers include a map of the lighthouse and the surrounding area. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Another great choice for Women’s History Month, this would also pair well with Sophie Blackall’s Hello, Lighthouse! The lengthy story gives plenty of details which are supplemented further with the author’s note. As always, Emily Arnold McCully’s illustrations are excellent and really capture the different seasons and types of weather experienced by the lighthouse dwellers.
Cons: The story is long enough that younger readers might get antsy during a read-aloud.
Summary: This biography of Nelson Mandela covers his early life in the first few pages, focusing primarily on his imprisonment from 1963 until 1990. Mandela studied and taught others while in prison, reaching out to both white guards and black prisoners. His isolation gradually decreased as reforms slowly came to South Africa, and on February 2, 1991, he was released from prison. Three years later, he voted for the first time in his life–and was elected president of South Africa. Includes extensive back matter: lengthy author’s and illustrator’s notes; additional information on apartheid, the ANC, and Mandela’s imprisonment; a timeline of Mandela’s life and South Africa’s journey to democracy; and lists of books, videos, and websites with additional information (but, surprisingly, no photos). 48 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: An inspiring look at Nelson Mandela’s life, with beautiful, brilliant acrylic paintings to illustrate it, and lots of material to support further research.
Cons: I wish this book had been edited more; the text is lengthy, and some of Mandela’s story could have been more effectively shown rather than told.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Hazel Ying Lee was a fearless girl who loved running races with her brothers. She fell in love with flying as a teenager, taking a job as an elevator operator (one of the few jobs open to Chinese Americans) to fund her flying lessons. When World War II began, she signed up for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), and became one of the few women to fly high-powered fighter jets. In 1944, a radio tower miscommunication resulted in a collision between Hazel’s plane and another, and she died two days later from her injuries. Her family had to appeal all the way to the White House for permission to bury her in the whites-only cemetery of their choice. An author’s note gives additional information, including the facts that WASPs finally received veteran status from Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Barack Obama awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009; also includes a list of additional resources. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Just in time for Women’s History Month (or at least the last ten days of it), this excellent picture book biography tells the story of a courageous young woman who overcame many obstacles to pursue her dream. The additional resources make it a great starting point for more research.
Summary: Nicholas Winton was a young man living in England when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, and a friend asked him to come to Prague to help. England was accepting refugees under the age of 17 if they had families to take them in. Nicky set up an office in Prague and began collecting names and photos of children. One of those children was Vera, a 10-year-old girl whose Czech parents wanted to send her to England. A few months later, Nicky returned to London to recruit families to take the children. He eventually got almost 700 children (including Vera) on eight trains out of Czechoslovakia. A ninth train with 250 children never made it out after the borders were closed, and only two children on that train survived the war. After the war, Vera returned home, but her entire family had perished, so she moved permanently to England. Nicky never told anyone what he had done until his wife discovered his lists in 1989 and arranged a TV reunion with many of the people he rescued. Nicky never thought of himself as a hero. “I only saw what needed to be done.” Includes a long author’s note with additional information and a photo of a young Nicholas Winton. 64 pages; grades 2-6.
Pros: Peter Sis uses spare, understated text and folk art-style illustrations to tell this amazing story of a quiet hero and the girl whose life he saved (among many others). Keep a Kleenex handy as you read this compelling story which is sure to engage readers well into middle school and may be considered for a few awards next year. And while you have the tissues out, watch this YouTube clip of Nicholas and Vera’s 1988 reunion on British television.
Summary: Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, Zora loved any kind of storytelling, and would hang around the general store to hear the townsfolk swapping stories. Her father and grandmother didn’t approve, but her mother encouraged her to “jump at de sun. You might not land on de sun, but at least you’ll get off de ground.” Sadly, Zora’s mother died when she was 13 years old, and her stepmother didn’t encourage her dreams. Zora was on her own at the age of 14, and she went to school as much as she could, graduating high school in her late 20’s. A college anthropology professor encouraged her to collect Negro folklore. She started the project in Eatonville, then moved on to other states, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Zora spent the rest of her life back in Eatonville, typing up those stories and writing her own as well. Includes an author’s note with additional information; a few Hurston stories recommended for children; and a list of sources. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The story of Zora Neale Hurston is told with plenty of energy in the voice of the stories she loved by Newbery honoree Alicia D. Williams. The illustrations complement the story, with cartoon bubbles that includes snippets of those stories.
Cons: For such a long picture book biography, which would make a great starting point for research, there was surprisingly little back matter.
Summary: Beloved author Gary Paulsen writes of his “lost childhood” in five sections, beginning in 1944 when, at the age of 5, his grandmother took him from his alcoholic mother and sent him to live on a remote farm with his aunt and uncle. Although the work there was hard, he felt happy and secure until his mother unexpectedly showed up and took him to the Philippines to live with his father for the first time. The horrific ship ride there and his time in Manila make up the second and third parts of the book, then he moves on to age 13, back in the U.S. His parents drank and fought constantly, and he was pretty much on his own, running away regularly to work on farms and at a carnival. The final chapter tells of his time in the army, winding up with his decision to make more of himself than the other men he saw there. On the last page, at the age of 80, he finds a notebook that a beloved librarian gave him, and thinks, “What the hell. Might as well write something down.” 368 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: I zipped through this compelling memoir in just a couple of days, both mesmerized and horrified by Paulsen’s stories of his incredibly difficult childhood and adolescence. Written in third person (he refers to himself as “the boy”), this story will be appreciated by fans of other Paulsen books, and will help readers understand the experiences that have influenced his work (although you might want to preview it before handing to some wide-eyed fourth-grade Hatchet fan).
Cons: This is more of a memoir than an autobiography, and readers will only learn certain episodes from Paulsen’s youth rather than all that happened to him in those years.
Summary: Young Dovey follows her grandmother and other neighborhood women into the dark woods to pick berries before dawn. Her grandmother reassures her when she’s scared of the dark, and before long everyone is filling their pails with berries. Suddenly, Grandma stops and tells Dovey to look. The sky turns from black to pink to gold, and as the new day begins, they head back home again. Includes a four-page author’s note and additional information about civil rights leader Dovey Mae Johnson Roundtree and her grandmother Rachel Millis Bryant Graham; photos; a timeline; and a bibliography. 40 pages; grades K-6.
Pros: This would make a great mentor text for personal narratives, complete with the beautiful illustrations that show the changing light as the night gradually gives way to daytime. The extensive back matter makes this an excellent research resource that could be used well into middle school.
Cons: The back matter is quite long, written in a single-spaced small font; while I appreciated all the information, it would have been nice to have something more accessible for the story’s audience.