She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lynn Fulton, illustrated by Felicita Sala

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  On a dark and stormy night two hundred years ago, young Mary sat in her room trying to think of a story.  Downstairs, she could hear her friends Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (soon to be her husband) talking about their own stories.  The group had decided to have a contest to see who could write the best ghost story in a week, and the deadline was approaching.  Finally, Mary went to bed, but in her dreams, she saw a huge creature lying on a table, with a terrified young student shrinking away from him.  Mary knew the young man had brought this being to life. Jolted awake, heart pounding, she realized she finally had an idea for her story. Includes an author’s note about Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein, with additional information about Mary and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who is referenced in the book.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  The writing and illustrations create a deliciously creepy feeling as readers learn about the history behind Mary’s famous book.  This would be an excellent supplement to anyone reading Frankenstein.

Cons:  This is a somewhat fictionalized account (the author’s note tells the parts she took some liberties with) and not really a biography, since it only covers a single episode in Mary Shelley’s life.

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Picturing America: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Art by Hudson Talbott

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Thomas Cole loved nature and drawing from the time he was a little boy growing up in the English countryside.  When the Industrial Revolution hit, his family fell on hard times and decide to emigrate to America. The family settled first in Ohio, then Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until they moved to New York that Thomas’s luck began to change.  A merchant named Thomas Bruen admired Cole’s landscape paintings and financed a trip up the Hudson.  Cole’s paintings of the wilderness there brought him fame and fortune, enough to support him on a three-year visit to Europe. He was particularly fascinated by the ruins in Rome, and painted a series of landscapes depicting a society moving from wilderness to civilization and back again.  He returned to the U.S., where he married and settled in the Catskills, living and working there until his death at the age of 47. His style, known as the Hudson River school of art, was the first American art movement, and influenced many other American artists for generations. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This straightforward biography is illuminated with many of Cole’s paintings, showcasing an important early American artist.

Cons:  A timeline would have been useful, since only one date is given in the text (1818, the year the Coles came to the U.S.).

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Rock What Ya Got by Samantha Berger, illustrated by Kerascoet

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  An artist creates a girl named Viva, then, dissatisfied, begins to erase her.  Viva grabs the pencil.  “Excuse me, lady, artist, ma’am/but I like me the way I am./Before you change one line or dot,/can I try…to rock what I got?”  Unconvinced, the artist tries tweaking parts of Viva: first her hair, then her body, then the background.  Each time, Viva reappears in her original form, with her reminder to “Rock what ya got!”  Finally, the artist remembers a book with that title that she wrote when she was about Viva’s age.  She hugs Viva, happy with her exactly as she is, and makes a promise to herself not to forget this line again.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A catchy line with a good message of self-acceptance and great illustrations showing the artist’s different attempts at altering Viva.

Cons:  I was hoping there would be an afterword…did Samantha Berger really create such a book for herself as a kid?

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Tigers and Tea With Toppy by Barbara Kerley and Rhoda Knight Kalt, illustrated by Matte Stephens

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  Rhoda loves spending weekends in New York City with her Grandpa Toppy and Grandma Nonnie.  On Saturday, Toppy, whose real name is Charles R. Knight, takes his granddaughter to the American Museum of Natural History where he shows her the paintings he created of animals and prehistoric scenes.  Even though he is legally blind, he is able to draw and paint the dinosaurs from their fossilized skeletons. The next day they visit the Central Park Zoo where Toppy shows Rhoda the animals he studied so closely to learn how to draw them accurately.  Rhoda, Toppy, and Nonnie finish off the weekend with a celebratory tea at the Plaza Hotel. Includes author and artist notes with more information about Knight and the creation of the book; source notes; some of Knight’s animal drawings; and photos of Toppy and Rhoda.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun way to introduce the life of Charles Knight.  One interesting tidbit: illustrator Matte Stephens is legally blind, like Knight was, and uses some of the same techniques to create his art.

Cons: I would have enjoyed seeing more of the prehistoric paintings.

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Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community by Susan Verde, illustrated by John Parra

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A boy describes the concrete wall in his neighborhood, and all the goings-on in front of it throughout the seasons.  The people sing, dance, skateboard, eat, and tell stories, but the wall just sits there doing nothing. Then, the boy decides to change that.  Working with others from the community, he designs a picture to paint on the wall. The wall becomes a canvas for art that everyone can contribute to.  In the end, it’s covered with pictures of the people that have been shown on the previous pages. Includes author’s and illustrator’s notes telling about their experiences and inspirations from street art.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Readers may be inspired to create their own street art after reading this book.  The illustrations show a busy, diverse community that looks like a fun place to live.  Kids will enjoy looking back to find the people portrayed on the mural.

Cons:  The author’s note is a bit long for the intended audience; it would have been nice to include some photos of real street art along with her explanation.

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With My Hands: Poems About Making Things by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, pictures by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  These 25 poems celebrate the act of creation, starting with one entitled “Maker” and ending with “With My Hands”.  In between are poems about knitting, tie dying, soap carving, and a host of other projects. There are a few concrete poems (“Knitting” and “Glitter”); a few don’t rhyme, but most so.  Each poem is accompanied by a colorful collage illustration of kids and the creation described in the poem. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A fun collection that will inspire young makers.  All the projects are low-tech and most could be done in some version by preschoolers.

Cons:  Another dimension could have been added to the book by including project instructions to go with the poems.

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My Family Divided: One Girl’s Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope by Diane Guerrero, with Erica Moroz

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  TV actress Diane Guerrero (Orange Is the New Black, Jane the Virgin) relates her struggles growing up as the child of two undocumented parents.  When Diane was 14, she came home from school one day to find out that both of her parents had been arrested.  They were ultimately deported to Colombia, and Diane stayed with friends for the next four year so she could finish school.  Halfway through college, she began suffering from depression that resulted in cutting and a suicide attempt. She was fortunate to get therapy, learning to finally deal with her emotions about what had happened to her.  Her work with her therapist influenced her to pursue her passion for acting. Not only has she launched a successful television and movie career, but she has become an advocate for undocumented immigrants and their children. 256 pages; grades 5-9.

Pros:  Diane’s story is pretty riveting, and shines a light on children whose lives are affected by an undocumented status in their families; those who are fortunate enough not to be dealing with those issues will relate to her everyday struggles with family, friends, and school.

Cons:  Not necessarily a con, but just be aware that Diane expresses some pretty strong anti-Trump sentiments in the final chapter.

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