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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Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin, illustrated by Evan Turk

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary:  McKinley Morganfield was born into a family of sharecroppers on the Mississippi delta, and from a young age, he did his own thing.  He couldn’t stay out of the mud, resulting in his childhood nickname of Muddy.  He loved the blues; even though his grandmother didn’t love them, he taught himself to play guitar and played and sang whenever he could.  As a young man, he got into a fight with his boss, and was forced to leave town.  He headed for Chicago, hoping to make a living as a musician.  After playing in clubs for a while, he tried to make a record.  Producers wanted him to copy others’ music, but Muddy eventually found success with his own sound.  An author’s note gives more information about Muddy Waters’ life, music, and his influence on later musicians like the Beatles.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Evan Turk’s unique illustrations (Caldecott contender?) perfectly capture the spirit of Muddy Waters’ life and the blues music he created.  The text has a lyrical feel to it as well.

Cons:  More biographical information or a timeline would have been useful.

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victo Ngai

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  During World War I, Great Britain was desperate to find a way to protect its ships from German torpedoes.  Desperate enough to consider training seagulls or sea lions to spot submarines, or to have swimmers try to smash the subs’ periscopes.  But then a Royal Navy officer had an idea to camouflage the ships.  The camouflage, however, wasn’t to make the ships blend in with their surroundings, but rather to use brilliant patterns to break up the shape of the boats and confuse the Germans looking at them through their periscopes.  The Navy hired teams of women to come in and “dazzle” many of its ships.  The U.S. copied the idea, and over 4,000 ships were painted before the end of the war in 1918.  Did this method really work?  The verdict is still out; more ships did avoid torpedoes, but there were other tactics used like convoys and depth charges that might have been more effective.  The dazzle ships do celebrate, in an eye-catching way, the power of creative thinking and problem solving.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator with more history and a description of how they created this book, as well as a timeline of WWI events, and some photos of Wilkinson, his team of painters, and one of their ships.  36 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An fascinating bit of little-known military history, illustrated with amazing art nouveau paintings that celebrate patterns and the art of the time.  I would love to see this considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  It was disappointing to learn that the dazzle ships might not have actually prevented any torpedo attacks.

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.

What’s Your Favorite Color? by Eric Carle and Friends

Published by Henry Holt

Summary:  As a follow-up to What’s Your Favorite Animal?, Eric Carle and 14 other children’s book illustrators tell what their favorite color is and why.  Carle favors yellow, which should surprise no one familiar with his bright suns.  He also finds it the most challenging color to work with because it can easily become muddy.  Other illustrators cite a hue that evokes a memory or a mood.  Surprisingly, gray is the only color that was chosen twice (by Rafael Lopez and Melissa Sweet, who clarifies that it is “Maine morning gray”).  Each illustrator has created a picture to go with his or her choice.  Uri Shulevitz concludes the collection by choosing all colors.  One color may be lonely, but all together they will have a colorful party! The last two pages have thumbnail photos of each artist as a child, along with a brief biography.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This book could be used in many ways–to introduce illustrators, as an art book, or to prompt kids to write about their own favorite colors.

Cons:  Kids might not appreciate this book as much without some adult guidance.

 

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  Is it a mistake or an opportunity to be creative?  When an artist draws a girl with two different-sized eyes, glasses fix the problem.  When her feet don’t quite meet the ground in the picture, the addition of a pair of roller skates makes it look better.  A strange frog-cat-cow animal becomes a nice-looking bush.  Before long, the page is filled with an imaginative collection of people and animals doing all kinds of activities in a gigantic tree house.  Gradually, the artist moves away from the scene until it appears to be incorporated into the glasses girl’s head…and that girl is starting all over with a new picture.  56 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The beautiful and intricate illustrations convey the message that it’s okay to make mistakes.  There is always a way to fix them, often making the new product better than the original.

Cons:  I found the last few pages confusing.