Summary: As a child in Georgia, Alma Thomas loved observing the bright colors around her and making things with her hands. She and her three younger sisters weren’t allowed to go to the white school or library, so their parents filled their house with books and teachers. When Alma was 15, her family moved to Washington, D.C. to give their daughters more opportunities, and Alma graduated from high school and college, where she studied art. She taught for many years before retiring at age 69 and pursuing her own art. Using the bright colors she had loved as a child, she created paintings inspired by nature and by space travel. Alma was the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York. Years after her death in 1978, Barack and Michelle Obama chose one of Alma Thomas’s paintings to hang in the White House, the first artwork there by a Black woman. Includes notes from the author and illustrator, photos, a timeline of events in Alma’s life and the United States during her lifetime, and a list of sources. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: I had never heard of Alma Thomas, but I loved her story and the illustrations inspired by her art. While the intended audience may not appreciate the fact that Alma’s art career took off after she turned 70, I found that inspiring.
Cons: It seemed at odds with the theme of the book that the photo of Alma was in black and white.
Summary: Mary Katharine Goddard grew up in the Connecticut colony with her parents and younger brother William. Unlike most girls of the time, she learned to read and write alongside her brother. When her father died, she and her mother moved to Providence, Rhode Island, while her brother served an apprenticeship as a printer. He started several newspapers but had the unfortunate habit of abandoning them to move onto other endeavors. Mary Katharine learned the business and took over the papers, first in Providence, then in Philadelphia, and finally in Baltimore. When William started a new project, creating a postal service for the colonies, Mary Katharine took on additional responsibilities as postmaster of Baltimore. She was known as a loyal patriot, so when the Continental Congress decided to print a copy of the Declaration of Independence with the names of the signers, they gave her the job. Usually, Mary Katharine used the name M. K. Goddard for her printing work, but for the Declaration she used her full name, the only name of a woman to appear on the document. Includes an author’s note, list of important terms with definitions, and a list of sources. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This is a great resource to add to American Revolutionary War units, featuring a little-known but fascinating woman who seems to have been way ahead of her time. The author’s note gives lots of additional information, including the fact that Mary Katharine had an enslaved woman who helped her run her business (and to whom she granted freedom and left all her possessions when she died).
Cons: I saw this recommended for kids as young as 5, but the text-heavy story, small font, and need for some historical context make it a better choice for older kids.
A handful of picture book biographies about women arrived for me at the library this week, and since March is Women’s History Month, I’ll be featuring them for the rest of the week.
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Summary: Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, tells the story of her life growing up with her younger brother, Wolfie. The two of them took to music at an early age and were playing concert halls in cities across Europe from the ages of five and ten. Nannerl also loved composing, but her father forbade it, saying that writing music was only for men. When Nannerl turned eighteen, she was told that touring was over for her and that she would stay home and get married. Wolfie continued to tour, and their correspondence grew less and less frequent until one devastating day when she learned of his death. Nannerl lived for almost forty more years, returning to Salzburg and her beloved harpsichord. Includes an author’s note explaining that this book is creative nonfiction, not a strict biography; also, a timeline, glossary, and list of books and online sources. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: This is a fascinating story made more interesting by being told in Nannerl’s voice. The illustrations are a beautiful addition, particularly the ones that show the music created by the Mozarts.
Cons: A quick look at Wikipedia tells me there is a lot more to Maria Anna’s story and her relationship with her brother and father than this book is able to cover.
Summary: When the narrator gets assigned to do a project on a trailblazing woman, he chooses Betty White. Not everyone is thrilled with his decision: his teacher and one of his dads keep asking, “Wouldn’t you rather choose someone more…traditional?” But his mind is made up, and off he goes to the library to do his research. A woman in sunglasses and a big hat gives him some help, adding some details about Betty’s early career as an actress and producer and continuing to her fame in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. His presentation turns out to be a smashing success, and the mysterious lady is there to cheer him on. As the crowd in school watches her drive off in a red convertible, it suddenly dawns on them: “That’s Betty!” Includes a timeline (which sadly ends with the 2022 entry “Betty turns 100 years old!”), photos, and a list of sources. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Appropriately, this picture book biography of Betty White is somewhat unconventional with a quirky cast of characters that includes Betty herself. Clearly the book was written to coincide with the actress’s 100th birthday, and although she didn’t make it to that milestone, the book feels appropriately celebratory.
Cons: This is a book that may be enjoyed more by adults than kids, who may not be familiar with Betty White and her acting career.
Summary: “Because fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin didn’t give up her seat on the bus for a white person on March 2, 1955, she was arrested.” Thus begins a chain of events that leads Claudette to become friends with Rosa Parks, get involved with the Montgomery bus boycott, and to testify in court when her lawyer challenged the segregation laws. Claudette was inspired by Black activists from the past as well as her contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other women who refused to give up their bus seats. When the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional, Claudette read about it in the newspaper. “On December 21, 1956, anyone could sit wherever they liked on the bus. And all of it happened because of Claudette.” Includes a brief author’s note, and a list of two books and three websites for further research. 32 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: The simple text and beautiful illustrations (I love that cover) show how one young person can make a big difference. This would be an inspiring book to read to younger kids for Black History Month.
Cons: The lack of back matter was a real missed opportunity: there could have been photos, a lot more biographical information on Claudette, as well as more about the the others pictured in the text.
Summary: “Georgia Gilmore was cooking when she heard the news.” Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus, news that came as no surprise to Georgia who had had her own run-in with a bus driver and no longer used the buses. She was delighted when a boycott was announced and enjoyed the company of others when she walked to work. Georgia started cooking to raise money for the drivers giving rides to those whose commute was too far to walk. Later, she helped her friend and neighbor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by testifying in court at his trial for organizing the boycott. King reciprocated by giving Georgia money to start her own restaurant when she was fired from her job. Soon, the restaurant overflowed with enthusiastic diners, and Georgia was cooking once again when she heard the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Includes additional information about Georgia Gilmore, a list of sources, and a note about research that should be required reading for all young researchers. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: Mara Rocklin’s engaging writing style and Caldecott honoree R. Gregory Christie’s vivid illustrations bring to life this unsung heroine of the civil rights movement. Readers will be inspired to learn how humble actions like cooking and walking to work helped bring about important changes.
Summary: Growing up in the Garden State, Alice Waters enjoyed fresh produce from her family’s backyard. In college, a semester abroad introduced her to the wonders of French cuisine, which she tried to duplicate for her friends when she returned home. After graduation, she bought an old house that she fixed up and turned into Chez Panisse, a restaurant that served a single meal each night. The restaurant was a huge success, but Alice struggled to find the fresh ingredients she remembered from her childhood and her trip to France. She traveled through northern California, looking for small farms where food was produced in traditional ways. Using this food in her restaurant helped start the movement toward local food that is popular today. Includes two pages of additional information, including Alice’s work with schools to produce local fresh food; a timeline, and a bibliography. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: This quirky book perfectly captures the spirit of Alice Waters’ restaurant, where the staff would dance late into the night after the diners left and a friend once cooked and ate his shoe after losing a bet. The mouth-watering descriptions of fresh food may even entice kids to eat their vegetables.
Cons: Like Alice, I grew up in Chatham, New Jersey and ate produce from my father’s backyard garden all summer; unlike her, I did not turn out to be a world-class restaurateur or even a particularly good cook.
Summary: Elijah Cummings’ parents worked as sharecroppers on a South Carolina farm before moving to Baltimore to give their seven children a better life. Elijah struggled in school, but with the help of his parents, the librarians at his public library, and his first employers, he went on to Howard University and eventually became a lawyer. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 until 1996, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Elijah was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2003; when he died in 2019, he became the first African American legislator to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Includes remarks by Nancy Pelosi and an excerpt of a statement from the Congressional Black Caucus following Elijah’s death as well as a timeline, a bibliography, and a list of sources. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The first part of the book about Elijah’s early life is an inspiring testimony to the power of hard work and having mentors. The writing is engaging, and the illustrations are a kid-friendly enhancement of the text.
Cons: I don’t want to diminish Elijah Cummings’ considerable achievements, but to me, the second part of the book was less interesting than the first. If I were reading this to elementary kids, I would want to supplement it in some way to make it more engaging for them.
Summary: When Sonny Rollins needs a place to practice his music that won’t disturb the neighbors, he heads for the bridge. Climbing the steps to the walkway, he finds a place where he can blow his saxophone as loud as he wants. Subway cars, tugboats, and seagulls add their distinctive voices to the song Sonny plays from New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge. Includes additional information about Sonny Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a collection of quotes from interviews with Sonny, now 91 years old. 32 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This would be a great resource for music teachers to introduce Sonny Rollins’s music. The brief poetic text makes a quick but compelling read-aloud, there’s lots more information at the end, and the illustrations gorgeously capture the feeling of music on the bridge.
Cons: There’s not much biographical information in the main story; the back matter provides more, but more research will be needed for a full picture of Sonny Rollins’s life and career.
Summary: In 1984, when Waka was 12 years old, her mother decided that she didn’t know as much Japanese as she should and arranged for her to spend five months in Japan living with her grandmother, Obaasama. Not surprisingly, Waka was completely opposed to the idea, which meant missing the end of sixth grade, summer vacation, and the beginning of seventh grade and attending school in Japan for most of that time. She went from being a straight-A student in America to being near the bottom of the class in Japan and had to learn how to navigate the unfamiliar social structure of her classmates. By the end of the five months, though, her language skills had improved dramatically, and she had learned the importance of true friendship. While she came to understand and love Obaasama, she never really was able to communicate with her, and that left a deep sadness at the end of her visit. Ultimately, though, Waka comes to appreciate both of her cultures and to be grateful that she had the opportunity to spend the time in Japan learning about her heritage there. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: This book came out in January, and it’s taken me all year to get around to reading it. I’m not sure I ever would have (see the cons) if it hadn’t been for the fact that it’s currently #3 on the Goodreads mock Newbery list, and Betsy Bird included it in her fall Newbery predictions. I found the story funnier than I thought it would be, but also poignant, especially at the end. It really captures the immigrant experience of having a foot in each culture and makes a great case for the benefits of travel.
Cons: Something about the cover didn’t appeal to me and led me to believe that this was a much sadder book than it actually is.