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: Although not everyone in her neighborhood loves graffiti, this girl sees it as beautiful art decorating the walls and trains of her community. Some people complain about it, while others are too busy to notice it. In the park, there’s a big block party, and suddenly the art comes to life and joins in the celebration. Everyone boogies away except the girl, a friend, and their dog, who shake up some cans of spray paint and get busy creating art. 40 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: A rollicking rhyming book that celebrates the art and life of an urban neighborhood.
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: “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: 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”.
Summary: Until the age of 5, Joyce Scott and her twin sister Judy are inseparable. But when Joyce starts kindergarten, Judy, who had “what will come to be known as Down syndrome”, stays home. One day Joyce wakes up and finds that Judy is gone. From that day on, Judy lives in a big gray institution where Joyce only sees her on occasional visits. Joyce finds it harder and harder to leave at the end of each visit until, as an adult, she decides to bring Judy home to live with her and her family. Since Joyce works during the day, she enrolls Judy at the Creative Growth Art Center, an art school for adults with disabilities. For many months, Judy sits and looks at magazines, until one day she creates a small sculpture with twigs, yarn, twine, and paint. From that day on, she works at the studio every day, making unique art from all sorts of colorful materials. After her death, her work becomes renowned and continues to be exhibited all over the world. Includes information on Creative Growth Art Center and Down Syndrome, a timeline of Judith Scott’s life, notes from the author and illustrator, sources, and photographs of Judy and one of her sculptures called “Twins”. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: Judith Scott’s story is so engaging that, even though it’s a bit long for a picture book, it would hold the attention of younger readers, and possibly inspire them to try their own creations. Joyce’s voice passes along the love and appreciation she feels for her sister and Judy’s artistic gifts. And, as always, I would be happy to see Melissa Sweet get some Caldecott recognition, which I wanted so badly for Some Writer! that I feel compelled to still mention it four years later.
Cons: I wish there were more photos of Judy’s work in the book.
Summary: When Shahi’s music-obsessed dad goes missing, she and her cousin Naz wind up at Earl’s music store where her father spent a lot of time. They find an unusual old jukebox that plays LP records, then accidentally discover that it transports them back to the time the album was released. While they get some interesting glimpses of history, they don’t find Shahi’s dad. It takes a lot of trial-and-error and some detective work to finally figure out what’s going on and to have a reunion that not only brings Dad back to the present but mends some of the more difficult parts of Shahi’s relationship with him. Includes a playlist of songs referenced in the story; an author’s note explaining her inspirations for the book; and several pages showing the evolution of some of her artwork. 224 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: The premise of this graphic novel is very cool, and serves as a great introduction to a lot of music and some of the historical events that both inspired that music and were influenced by it. Although there’s a bit of an age gap between the two girls (Naz is Shahi’s babysitter), they are loyal friends who help and protect each other.
Cons: The story felt a bit too ambitious with not only the musical and historical aspects, but a variety of relationship issues and subplots about Naz’s ear surgery and worries about coming out as bisexual. The pictures at the beginning of the time travel sections included some jotted notes about the artist and/or album, which looked really interesting, but were hard to read.
Summary: As a child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn had two passions: art and justice. These continued after he and his family immigrated to America when he was 8 years old. Lacking the funds to attend college, Ben apprenticed himself to a lithographer and studied art at night. He worried that the art that he learned about in school was different from what he wanted to paint: stories. In 1927, outraged by the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ben created 23 paintings to tell their stories. Later he was hired by the U.S. government to document the poverty of the Great Depression through photographs and paintings. He continued to create stories with his art through the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War until his death in 1969. Includes notes from the author and illustrator; a photo of Ben Shahn; a timeline of his life; and a bibliography and source notes. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: An engagingly written story of Ben Shahn’s life, focusing on both his art and his passion for justice. His work influenced the illustrations of Evan Turk, whom I think we can all agree should finally get some Caldecott recognition.
Summary: Growing up in Victorian England, Marianne North was never encouraged in her passions for art and botany. Self-taught in both, she stayed home and cared for her “irritable, demanding” father until his death when she was 40. When an elderly widow invited her to be a traveling companion to North America, Marianne jumped at the chance. This trip led her to Jamaica and the tropics she had long dreamed of seeing. She eventually circumnavigated the world several times, seeking out exotic plant species that she could paint. When her paintings crowded her London flat, she arranged to have a gallery built for them as part of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The Marianne North Gallery opened in 1882 with 627 paintings on display. She spent the last few years of her life at home in the English countryside, gardening, painting, and writing her memoirs before her death in 1890 at the age of 59. Includes additional information on her legacy and writings, as well as sources and a who’s who of people Marianne encountered throughout her life. 44 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This fascinating account of a woman who defied social expectations to lead an adventurous life makes for an inspiring read. Her single-minded passions, preference for being alone, and discomfort with social situations made me wonder if she was neurodivergent. The brilliant illustrations capture the spirit of North’s work, and make sure to check out the endpapers for reproductions of some of her paintings (identified in the back matter).