Summary: In the 1940’s, young people danced in groups divided by race and ethnicity. Millie danced to jazz in her Italian neighborhood, while Pedro danced to Latin songs in his Puerto Rican community. But then a band called Machito and His Afro-Cubans started mixing things up, using jazz trumpets and saxophones with Latin maracas and congas to make what they called Latin jazz. In 1948, New York City’s Palladium Ballroom broke the rules by opening its doors to everyone and hiring Machito to play for them. It brought together Millie and Pedro, who danced a new dance called the mambo–and danced it so well that they became the best at the Palladium, the best in New York City, and finally, the best in the United States. Includes an author’s note with more information on Machito, the Palladium, and the dancers mentioned in the text; also a list of resources. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The realistic oil painting illustrations and the brief text capture the movement and energy of the dancers, as well as the different groups that came together at the Palladium. The back matter adds good informational value.
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: Andy Warhol narrates his story, starting with his job drawing shoes. “All day long it was shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe. I felt like a robot in a factory. It was so cool.” Soon he was drawing other everyday objects as art like Campbell’s soup cans (“Do you like soup? We all like soup”) and boxes of Brillo pads. He made an eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building and prints of Marilyn Monroe (“Did I make her famous? Or did she make me famous?”). He started a magazine and made a TV show. At the end, he predicts the future of media where there will be things to watch, things to follow, and things to share. Astute readers will realize that that future is already here. Includes an author’s note with additional information that speculates on how Andy Warhol might be making art if he were still alive today. 48 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This unique biography really captures Andy Warhol’s art and voice, and would serve as an excellent introduction to use in an art class. There’s humor and some interesting questions for readers to ponder, as well as references to Warhol’s accessible pop art that will undoubtedly pique kids’ curiosity to learn more.
Cons: Since there’s not a lot of biographical information, a list of additional resources would have been helpful.
Summary: Eunice Waymon was a precocious musical talent, playing at her mother’s church from the age of 3. Her daddy taught her some jazz, she learned gospel at church, and her piano teacher taught her classical. After studying at Julliard, Eunice was rejected by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, a disappointment that she suspected was because she was Black and female. She almost gave up on music, but heard about a job performing in an Atlantic City club. Not wanting her religious mother to find out what she was doing, Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone. Her fame was growing during the years of the civil rights movement, and Nina began adding words to her music to express the anger, frustration, and fear she felt. “And when she sang of Black children–you lovely, precious dreams–her voice sounded like hope.” Includes additional information about Nina Simone and a bibliography. 56 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This well-written biography is sure to be considered for a Caldecott or Coretta Scott King award. Christian Robinson’s acrylic and collage illustrations cleverly incorporate scenes from the civil rights movement into illustrations of Nina’s performances.
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”.