Cut! How Lotte Reiniger and a Pair of Scissors Revolutionized Animation by C. E. Winters, illustrated by Matt Schu

Published by Greenwillow Books

Summary:  Who created the first full-length animated film, inventing the multiplane camera and storyboarding in the process?  If you answered Walt Disney, it’s time for you to pick up this book and learn about Lotte Reiniger, a German artist who developed a love of shadow puppetry as a child and became renowned for her creations.  After studying filmmaking and stop-motion animation with director Paul Wegener, she started making short animated films but didn’t think any audience would be interested in a feature-length one.  A friend convinced her to try, though, and she spent the next three years creating The Adventures of Prince Achmed. When it was finally completed in 1926, she had trouble finding a theater that would show it, but it eventually became a big success.  Lotte went on to make approximately sixty films, including one in a basement during the bombing of Berlin before she emigrated to England.  Includes a timeline, a list of sources, and an author’s note with additional information about Lotte.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Don’t forget, March is Women’s History Month, and this would make a fascinating read-aloud, maybe shown with the Prince Achmed trailer.  The story is well-told, and the illustrations capture the feel of Lotte’s work with film and silhouettes.

Cons:  The thought of making a film like this makes me want to lose my mind.  Lotte must have had incredible patience.

Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Award-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney was working on this memoir at the time of his death in 2021.  He writes of his childhood, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1940’s and 1950’s, surrounded by a chaotic but loving family and neighborhood.  Due to dyslexia (the book is written in a font created for those with dyslexia), he struggled in school, but always found solace in sketching and art.  His memories of home, school, and summers at the Jersey shore describe the racism he and his family had to deal with but also the support he got from his family, friends, and members of the community. Thanks to hard work and a little luck, he finds his way to beginning an art career by the end of the book. The epilogue describes how his early life led to his success as an illustrator. 160 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Jerry Pinkney has created a wonderful memoir, showing what it was like to grow up in a loving family that also struggled with racism; with an undiagnosed learning disability; and with a passion and talent for art.  He emphasizes the positives in his childhood without shying away from some of the difficulties.

Cons:  Because Jerry died before this was completed, the illustrations are his rough sketches.  I enjoyed them but couldn’t help feeling wistful about what might have been.

The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music by Roberta Flack and Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Hayden Goodman

Published by Anne Schwartz Books

Summary:  Roberta Flack’s family didn’t have a lot of money, but they had plenty of love–for each other and for music.  From the time she was three, Roberta played the piano at church, and she started lessons at the age of six.  Her most fervent wish was to have a piano of her own, and her father was able to grant that wish when he found an old piano in a junkyard.  He hauled it home, cleaned it, tuned it, and painted it green.  She practiced for hours, dreaming of a life of a musician, a dream that is shown coming true on the last page.  Includes a timeline of Flack’s career highlights and an author’s note describing her training as a classical musician, which led to her career as a pop singer.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A great story to share with early elementary kids, because so much of it is focused on Roberta’s early life.  I love the message of the author’s note, summarized in the last line: “Find your own ‘green piano’ and practice relentlessly until you find your voice, and a way to put that beautiful music into the world.”

Cons:  Kids may need an introduction to Roberta Flack’s music.

You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce! The Storied Life of Folk Artist Elijah Pierce by Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet, illustrated by Jennifer Mack-Watkins

Published by Kokila

Summary:  In this fictionalized story about real-life artist Elijah Pierce, a boy and his dad enter Mr. Pierce’s barbershop.  The shop is full of wood carvings, and Mr. Pierce is happy to share stories about his life and art.  The boy has some new colored pencils and is trying to get an idea for a picture.  Mr. Pierce tells him how his art often came from stories, whether they were from his own life, the Bible, or something someone told him.  After the haircut and the stories are finished, Mr. Pierce gives the boy a carved elephant.  “I think I know what I want to draw…” he says as he and his dad leave the shop.  The final page shows a father and son (I think the father is the boy who is now grown up) about to enter a museum with an exhibit of Elijah Pierce’s work.  Just like the dad at the beginning of the story, the man tells his son, “You gotta meet Mr. Pierce!”  Includes a timeline of Elijah Pierce’s honors, additional information about the exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., places to see Elijah’s work, and notes from the author and illustrator with additional information about Elijah Pierce, the book, and the illustrations.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A charming story about a little-known artist who will get some well-deserved recognition with this book.  The fictional format is engaging, and the folk-art inspired illustrations are the perfect complement.

Cons:  I found the ending a little confusing, as I couldn’t figure out what the boy had decided to draw, and I wasn’t sure who was pictured on the last page. 

Black Swans by Laurel van de Linde, illustrated by Sawyer Cloud

Published by Sunbird Books

Summary:  Six Black dancers, three men and three women, are profiled, each one given a few pages describing his or her career and the racism each one encountered and overcame to achieve groundbreaking success.  The six are listed in chronological order, beginning with Essie Marie Dorsey, who lived from 1893-1967, and finishing with Michaela DePrince, born in 1995 and currently dancing with the Boston Ballet.  The author’s note at the end lists eight other Black ballet dancers, with the years they lived and the companies they danced with.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Dancers will find plenty to inspire them in these stories, timed perfectly to celebrate Black History Month.  The illustrations capture the grace, strength, and beauty of the ballerinas.

Cons:  I wish there was more historical context for the biographies.

Only the Best: The Exceptional Life and Fashion of Ann Lowe by Kate Messner and Margaret E. Powell, illustrated by Erin K. Robinson

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Ann Lowe learned her first lessons about sewing and design from her grandmother, who had been an enslaved seamstress, and her mother, who owned a dress shop.  Ann’s work ethic showed itself early; when her mother died, young Ann put aside her grief and finished the dresses that had been ordered for New Year’s Eve.  A year later, she got a job in Tampa, Florida, sewing for a wealthy family.  Her ambitions took her to New York City, where she found success despite the racism she encountered there.  Jacqueline Bouvier hired Ann and her assistants to design and sew her gown and bridesmaid’s dresses for her wedding to Senator John F. Kennedy.  When a leaky ceiling flooded Ann’s workroom and destroyed all the dresses ten days before the wedding, she and her seamstresses recreated every one.  Ann capped her career by opening her own store with her own label on Madison Avenue.  Includes an author’s note with two photos, quotations, and a bibliography.  56 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  I loved Fancy Party Gowns by Deborah Blumenthal (2017), but I love this book at least as much.  There’s a bit more detail about Ann’s career, the writing style is engaging, and the illustrations are stunning.

Cons:  At 56 pages, it’s a bit long for a picture book.

The First Notes: The Story of Do, Re, Mi by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton, illustrated by Chiara Fedele

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  It’s hard to imagine music without written notes, but that was the world Guido d’Arezzo lived in at the beginning of the eleventh century.  He loved the music of his monastery, but the monks had to laboriously practice long hours to master each piece.  One day, Guido realized that the songs were made up of just five tones.  He named them from the first two letters of each line of a favorite song: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la (ut became do and ti was added many years later).  The other monks were unimpressed, but Guido later found a more receptive audience at a cathedral where he led the choir, and eventually with Pope John XIX.  Do-re-mi spread, eventually leading to the famous song from The Sound of Music, an illustrated version of which is included at the end of the book.  Also includes a glossary and additional information about Guido d’Arezzo and the song “Do-Re-Mi”.  48 pages, ages 4-8.

Pros:  Aww, a book about do-re-mi by Julie Andrews and her daughter!  It’s a pretty fascinating and well-told tale about something that many of us take for granted.  The illustrations made me want to go live in a medieval Benedictine monastery, no easy feat.

Cons:  Look closely at the cover or you might think, as I did at first, that it’s Maria von Trapp, not Brother Guido, singing and dancing his way through the mountains.

A Book, Too, Can Be a Star: The Story of Madeleine L’Engle and the Making of A Wrinkle In Time by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Adelina Lirius

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Summary:  Madeleine L’Engle grew up with a writer father and musician mother who encouraged her sense of wonder.  There were often artists at their New York City home, where Madeleine wrote stories from a young age.  She was shy, though, and school was difficult until she used her powers of imagination to make friends.  After college, she worked in the theater, where she met her husband.  They moved to the country and had three children while Madeleine continued her writing, most of which was rejected by publishers.  On a cross-country camping trip, she found inspiration in the Painted Desert and began working on the manuscript that would eventually become A Wrinkle in Time.  As her fame grew, she received many letters from children and always answered, encouraging them to find ways to tell their own stories.  Includes several pages of back matter including a list of Madeleine’s books for young readers, further reading, and a timeline.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  I loved the somewhat whimsical illustrations of this picture book biography co-written by one of Madeleine L’Engle’s grandchildren. It’s a great introduction to Madeleine’s life and would be a perfect lead-in to reading A Wrinkle in Time.  

Cons:  I wasn’t crazy about the timeline being on the back cover, although it is printed so it’s not covered by the back flap.

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra by Amy Ignatow, illustrated by Gwen Millward

Published by Walker Books US

Summary:  Kids love to play music, but what happens if their instruments break and families can’t afford to fix them?  Unfortunately, they often get locked away, and the students have to put their music education on hold.  Robert Blackson, the artistic director of Philadelphia’s Temple Contemporary, discovered some of these broken instruments in a closed city school.  He had the idea to get musicians to see what kind of music they could create with them, and the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra was born, using the money raised from the performance to buy new instruments for kids.  Includes an author’s note with additional information and a link to hear the performance as well as a note from Robert Blackson.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This true-life story provides plenty of inspiration and humor (the kids torturing those around them trying to play their broken instruments) with cute and colorful illustrations.  The performance is worth a listen. 

Cons:  Those not familiar with Philly’s Mummer’s Parade may not understand the reference made to the boy playing a broken drum.

What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

Published by Neal Porter Books

Summary:  The story begins and ends with the empty picture frames hanging in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum following the 1990 robbery of thirteen works of art worth $500 million.  In between, the reader learns of the eccentric Isabella who knew exactly what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to do what she needed to do to get it–even if it meant breaking some laws to obtain European and Asian artworks.  She built the museum herself, living on the top floor and displaying the art on the other three.  When it was done, she opened it to the public twenty days a year for more than twenty years.  Today, the museum is still a highlight to visit in Boston.  Includes an extensive author’s note with more information about Isabella (including her unethical collection practices) and a bibliography.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The lively free verse text and illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell bring Isabella and her museum to life and pose intriguing questions about the art theft.

Cons:  This is another New England Book Award finalist (the winner was Keepunumuk by Danielle Greendeer in case you’re interested) and may not be of as much interest to those living outside of New England.