Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Harriet Tubman’s story is told in reverse, beginning when she is “an old woman/tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy”.  Before that, she was a suffragist, and before that, a Union spy.  The narrative continues back in time, showing Harriet as Moses, conducting slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and finally, all the way back to a child named Araminta, “who dreamed/of living long enough/to one day/be old/stiff and achy/tired and worn and wrinkled/and free”.  32 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros: A brief, poetic look at Harriet Tubman’s life and many achievements, beautifully illustrated by Coretta Scott King medalist James Ransome.

Cons:  I was disappointed that there was no back matter giving more biographical information.

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Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Summary:  James Castle was deaf, mute, and autistic.  He never learned to read or speak.  He spent a good portion of his childhood in the loft of an unused icehouse, and later lived in an abandoned chicken coop.  His parents and teachers actively discouraged him from art, but he kept creating it any way he could.  He would collect scrap paper, and use a burned match and saliva to draw.  The people and animals he created from cast-off cardboard became his friends.  His nephew, Cort Conley, loved to watch him draw.  When Cort went to art school, he showed one of his teachers his Uncle Jimmy’s work.  The professor was so excited, he drove to Boise, Idaho to meet James, and later organized an exhibit in Portland, Oregon.  Other exhibits and sales followed, and when James Castle died, he left behind over 15,000 pieces of art.  An author’s note explains how Allen Say came to write this book after being asked by his friend Cort to create a portrait of his uncle.  64 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A sad but fascinating story of a man who was pretty much treated like trash by everyone who knew him, including his own family, yet continued to create art whenever and wherever he could.  Much of Allen Say’s art is done in the style of Castle’s, and may very well be considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  I wasn’t sure if the illustrations were done by Castle, or by Say in Castle’s style.  If they were the originals, some captions would have been helpful; if they weren’t, I would have liked to see some of the originals at the end of the book.

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Imagine That: How Dr. Seuss Wrote the Cat in the Hat by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Published by Random House

Summary:  In 1954, there were lots of great new books for kids like Charlotte’s Web and Horton Hears a Who!.  Good books for those who already knew how to read; for children just learning, there wasn’t much.  Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was hired to write a fun and interesting book for beginning readers, using an “official” list of approved words.  He thought it would take him a week or two, but he ended up spending over a year getting it just right.  The result, of course, was The Cat in the Hat, and it became an instant hit, leading Ted to write more books for beginning readers like The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and Hop on Pop.  When his friend Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a book with just 50 different words (The Cat in the Hat had 236), Geisel rose to the occasion once again with Green Eggs and Ham.  Includes writing and illustrating tips from Dr. Seuss, notes from the author and illustrator, and a list of books by Dr. Seuss. 48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun look at creative genius, with a few pages of Seuss-inspired rhyming text and plenty of Seuss-inspired illustrations.  Messages about perseverance and hard work are subtly woven into the story.

Cons:  A brief biography or timeline at the end would have been a nice addition.

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Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Arturo Schomburg grew up in Puerto Rico, where he loved reading and history.  When his fifth grade teacher told him that people from Africa had no history, he began a lifelong quest to prove her wrong.  At age 17, he moved to New York and became a bank clerk, but his real passion was collecting books, papers, and pamphlets having to do with African and African-American history.  Eventually, his collection grew to such a size that his wife said she was leaving if he didn’t sell it.  The New York Public Library purchased it, and it became the cornerstone of their Negro History, Literature, and Prints collection.  Schomburg also served as curator for the Negro Collection at Fisk University Library in Tennessee.  Includes a timeline and bibliography. 38 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  The free verse poems that make up the text tell the story of Arturo Schomburg, but also of many of the people whose stories he collected, including Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint Louverture.  A poem called “Whitewash” explores the African heritage, mostly ignored, of such famous people as John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, and Beethoven.  The large oil paintings that illustrate this oversized book bring all these subjects to life.

Cons:  From the outside, this looks like a picture book biography of Arturo Schomberg, but there is much more to it.  It would be doing a disservice to try to get through it all in a single sitting.

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The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter

Published by Beach Lane Books

Summary:  Growing up in Iraq, Zaha Hadid loved to see patterns in nature and in her surroundings, and dreamed of turning those patterns into buildings.  She moved to London to study architecture, then, with a few friends, opened her own firm called Studio 9.  Her designs were so unusual that she had trouble convincing others that they could be built.  But she knew that the world is not a rectangle, and had the confidence to persevere.  Her determination paid off, and her unique buildings are now in cities around the world.  Zaha died in 2016, but Studio 9 lives on, continuing to make her dreams reality.  Back matter includes two pages of thumbnail sketches of the buildings mentioned in the text, identifying where they are located, a bit more biographical information, and a page of sources.  56 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  This would be useful as a biography or an art book, maybe inspiring kids to design their own buildings from nature.  I really love Jeannette Winter’s style of art (she also illustrated The Secret Project), and am hoping that the Caldecott committee takes a look at both of her books this year.

Cons:  There were no photos of the buildings.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Published by Henry Holt

Summary:  Maya Lin grew up surrounded by nature, books, and parents “who never told her what to be or how to think”, having left China to escape that kind of doctrine.  Maya loved to create, inspired by her artist father and poet mother.  In college, she decided to study architecture, combining her love of art, science, and math.  When she was a senior, she entered a contest to design a memorial for the Vietnam War.  Her entry was selected from 1,421 others.  When the judges found out how young she was, they were shocked, and many felt that another design should be chosen.  Maya persisted, however, and her dream of a beautiful black wall with the names of those who died in the Vietnam War became a reality. It was the first of many art-architecture installations that Maya continues to create today.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Maya Lin and the memorial.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A quiet, beautiful work about a talented artist who persisted in bringing her creation to fruition.  The digital watercolors by first-time illustrator Phumiruk perfectly capture tone of the book and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Cons:  This only touches on details of Lin’s life, and is not a complete biography.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, illustrated by Man One

Published by Readers to Eaters

Summary:  Roy Choi’s family moved from South Korea to Los Angeles when he was two.  He grew up exploring the streets of L.A. and coming home to his mom’s delicious Korean cuisine.  After graduating from culinary school, Roy became a chef in a fancy restaurant.  When he lost his job, he decided to partner up with a friend and open a taco truck with a Korean twist.  The Kogi Korean taco trucks were a hit, and Roy built on this success by starting the Locol restaurant in the Watts neighborhood of L.A.  He continues to expand his culinary offerings, bringing his cooking to as many different types of places and people as he can.  Includes notes from both authors and the illustrator, as well as a bibliography and list of resources.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The third collaboration between Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Readers to Eaters, this mouth-watering, fast-paced biography is designed to inspire kids to cook and eat new foods.  The graffiti-influenced illustrations are the perfect complement for this ode to the city streets.

Cons:  You’ll be craving a Korean taco before you’re halfway through this book.