Summary: This short chapter book is part of the series inspired by Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted books. Persistence is definitely a theme, as the story follows Florence from her childhood, growing up in a large family to college, to her struggles to pay her way through college, to her determination to become the world’s fastest woman. Despite challenges and setbacks, she finally emerged victorious in the 1988 Summer Olympics, where she won three gold medals and one silver. She was also well-known for her distinctive fashion designs that she wore on the track. Sadly, the book ends with Flo-Jo’s death in 1998 at the age of 38 from an epileptic seizure in her sleep. Includes a list of 8 ways you can persist and references. 80 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Normally, I’m not a fan of celebrity-authored children’s literature, so I’ve pretty much steered clear of Chelsea Clinton’s books. But when I saw the award-winning authors writing these biographies, I finally broke down and read one. It’s very well done, with plenty of information for both research and inspiration. The length and illustrations make it an accessible choice for younger elementary kids, and I plan to add many of these books to my library.
Cons: I’m not sure I knew about Florence Griffith Joyner’s death, but if I did I had forgotten and was shocked when I got to that part of the book.
Summary: If you’ve ever seen the rainbow-covered Boston Gas tanks or recall the 1985 USPS Love stamp (also with a rainbow), you’ve seen the work of Corita Kent. Corita grew up in a large family where she loved art and using her imagination. As a young woman, she surprised her family and friends by becoming a nun. She also became a teacher, and used her gifts of art and imagination to liven up her classroom. Eventually, she joined the art faculty of Immaculate Heart College, where she continued to develop her own art. Her somewhat unconventional approach to life and work put her increasingly at odds with her supervisors in the church, and at age 50, she left her life as a nun. She spent the next 18 years pursuing art and fun (she coined the word “plork” to describe the combination of play and work) before her death in 1986. Includes a chronology of Corita’s life, notes from the author and illustrator, and vibrant endpapers with a photo of Corita and some of her art. 80 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: “Plork” may be my new favorite word, and the text and illustrations really capture the spirit that Corita Kent brought to all aspects of her life. Readers of all ages will be inspired by this vibrant woman’s life; this made me want to seek out more of her art and books.
Cons: I was a little put off by the length of this book, and procrastinated reading it, thinking it would take a while. Once I started, though, I flew through it, so don’t let the 80 pages be a deterrent to reading it yourself or to others.
Summary: Scott Joplin grew up in a musical family in Texarkana, Arkansas. His parents encouraged his talents by buying him a piano, not an easy feat for the impoverished family, and got him lessons when his mother offered to clean the music teacher’s house. When Scott was old enough, though, his father told him he should get a job on the railroad, one of the only opportunities for a young African American man to find steady work. But the pull of music was too great, and Scott started playing in saloons, gradually working his way up to more respectable establishments and a chance to go to college. His love of a new form of music, ragtime, led to his most famous composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag”. Its success allowed him to leave saloons forever and focus on composing, creating “an American music like the country itself–a patchwork of sounds and colors.” Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional information, a bibliography, and a recommended listening list. 56 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: There’s a folksy feel to both the voice and the illustrations of this picture book biography that draws the reader in immediately. Although not a lot is known about Scott Joplin, the author does an amazing job of piecing together his story, and the author’s note and bibliography make this an excellent research resource.
Summary: Growing up in Mexico, Luz Jiménez learned the language and culture of her people, the Nahua. Although she dreamed of reading and becoming a teacher, this proved to be difficult. When she was young, indigenous children weren’t allowed to go to school; later the law changed, and they were required to go to Spanish-speaking schools, forbidden from speaking their native languages. When the Mexican Revolution came to her home, most of the men in Luz’s community were killed, including her father. She and her mother and sister moved to Mexico City, where Luz became an artist’s model. 20th-century artists were interested in portraying native people instead of the traditional light-skinned Spanish subjects. Through her work as a model, Luz also became a teacher, sharing her language and culture with others and becoming known as “the spirit of Mexico”. Includes notes from the author and artist, including a photograph and a list of illustrations that were inspired by other artists’ work who had painted Luz. Also a timeline, glossary, notes, and a bibliography. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Another excellent addition to the growing list of 2021 books about indigenous people. Despite Luz’s many difficulties, she maintained a positive spirit and contributed in many ways to Mexico’s history. Sure to receive some Pura Belpré consideration.
Cons: The illustrations that were inspired by other artists’ work were listed with page numbers; since there were no page numbers in the book, I wasn’t sure which page was being referenced.
Summary: Kitty O’Neil may have lost her hearing as a baby, but she never let it stop her from doing the most daring deeds she could find. From movie stunts to speed records for water skiing and boat racing, Kitty embraced any challenge. Her biggest goal was to break the women’s land-speed record of 308 miles per hour in the Motivator, her rocket-powered car. On December 6, 1976, Kitty drove across the Oregon desert, reaching a speed of 618 miles per hour. Her fans cheered wildly: “Kitty could not hear their cheering, but she could feel it in her bones.” Includes an author’s note with additional information about Kitty and her car; a list of her world records; and additional resources. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Focusing mostly on Kitty’s record-breaking drive, the story is exciting and incorporates facts about her early life. The author’s note provides additional context. This belongs on any list of books featuring people with disabilities.
Cons: It seems unfair that Kitty had to average two drives for the world record, so the official speed is 512 mph.
Summary: “If you are a boy named Isamu…at the market with your mother, it can be a crowded and noisy place. Maybe there is a quiet space that feels more like you.” Isamu prefers to observe the world by himself, wondering about everything he sees around him: the colors of the fruit at the market, the light through the paper lanterns near his home, the leaves that he finds in the forest. In the evening, his mother asks him how his day was. Isamu thinks how he was alone but not lonely, and how the forest and beach were like friends giving him gifts like sticks, pebbles and shells. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi and two photos of Isamu as a child and as an adult with one of his sculptures. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Introspective children will find a kindred spirit in Isamu Noguchi, and all readers can embrace Isamu’s wonder and appreciation for the natural world.
Cons: There aren’t many details about Isamu Noguchi or his art, nor are there any additional resources given.
Summary: In 2018, Sharice Davids became one of the first two Native American women in Congress. From a young age, Sharice loved to talk and used her big voice to make friends when her single mother’s army career forced them to move several times. She worked hard to get through college and law school and to pursue a passion for martial arts. Her law degree led her to a South Dakota reservation, where she helped people start small businesses, and eventually to a career at the White House. In Washington, she noticed that there weren’t a lot of people who looked like her, and decided to try to change that by running for Congress. Her victory made her not only one of the first Native women in Congress, but also the first LGBTQ Native American there. Includes an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, and additional information about Davids’ Ho-Chunk tribe. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: The chatty, informal tone of the writing makes Sharice seem like an old friend, and like pursuing your dreams is a real possibility. I loved the art for this book, created by Ojibwe Woodland artist Pawis-Steckley. I want to mention that this is the third book I’ve reviewed in the last week that’s by a Native American author with Native main characters. Things sure have changed since I started this blog in 2015, and it’s about time.
Cons: I wish there were more photos with the author’s note. I think the one there is of Sharice with her mom, but it wasn’t labeled, so I’m not sure.
Summary: The author recounts the story of her childhood, beginning with a happy life with her parents, younger sister, best friend Marika, and most of all, her special dog Bodri. Then soldiers came to their town, and everything changed. Jews like the author and her family could no longer go places, and the two best friends couldn’t play together. Eventually, her family was taken away to a concentration camp, and the two sisters separated from their parents. They almost died, but Hédi kept dreaming about Bodri, and the memories kept her going. Finally, the two girls–emaciated, with their heads shaved–were free, and Hédi and Bodri had a miraculous reunion. “We are here, and we go on telling everyone about what happened. So that it will never happen again.” 32 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: A moving Holocaust story, with an unusual focus on what happened to the family dog. The illustrations of the girls in the concentration camp are disturbing, but appropriately so for the history being told. The beautiful pictures of trees throughout the story help to mark the passage of time.
Cons: I was curious to learn more of Hédi Fried’s story, but I couldn’t find much biographical information about her.
Summary: Growing up, MaVynee Betsch loved the beach, but because she was Black, she was restricted by the “Colored Only” signs. Her grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first African-American millionaire, bought a beach that he called American Beach. It was open to everyone, and was visited by celebrities like Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. MaVynee grew up to become an opera singer, finding success across Europe. When her mother became sick, MaVynee came home to take care of her and never returned to opera. After her mother died, MaVynee became an activist, determined to save American Beach from developers. It took years of protest, but in 2001, the beach was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. MaVynee, or the Beach Lady as she was known, passed away in 2005. Includes notes from the author and illustrator. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: In the author’s note, Heidi Tyline King writes that operas often feature an aria, “a profoundly sad and emotional solo where the singer turns sorrow into something beautiful”. MaVynee Betsch’s story is like that; she seems to have felt profound sadness in many areas of her life, but her single-minded determination ultimately met with success in saving her beloved beach. Caldecott honoree Ekua Holmes’s beautiful collage illustrations enhance the story with their vibrant colors and patterns.
Cons: I was sorry there were no photos of the Beach Lady or her beach.
Summary: Selena’s love of singing is obvious from the first page of this biography, in which she’s using a rolled tortilla as a microphone. She started at a young age, and by the time she was nine, she was singing in a band at the family restaurant with her siblings on drums and guitar. Hard economic times meant losing the restaurant and a move to Corpus Christi, Texas, where the family bought a bus and went on the road to perform. Wanting to connect with her audience, Selena taught herself Spanish so she could sing the much-loved Tejano songs, ultimately succeeding in the male-dominated field of Tejano music. The story ends with Selena’s final concert at the Houston Astrodome performing before over 60,000 people, inviting them to “¡Canta conmigo!” Includes author’s note with additional biographical information and a list of Selena’s studio albums. Available in both English and Spanish versions. 32 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: Another great picture book biography about Selena that can be paired with last year’s Selena: Queen of Tejano Music. This one emphasizes Selena’s hard work and how she overcame sexism and racism to succeed. With the Netflix series introducing Selena’s music to a new generation, there’s sure to be a big demand for both of these books.
Cons: Selena’s marriage is covered in one sentence, with no mention of her married name Perez, and her death is described in the author’s note simply as “she was killed on March 31, 1995”.