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.

Finding My Dance by Ria Thundercloud, illustrated by Kalila J. Fuller

Published by Penguin Workshop

Summary:  The author introduces herself on the first page as Wakaja haja piiwiga, meaning “Beautiful Thunder Woman” from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin and the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico.  She loved dance from the time she received her first jingle dress and began dancing in the powwow at the age of 4.  At 13, she started learning other forms of dance–modern, tap, jazz, ballet–and became a professional dancer after graduating from high school.  Sometimes the restraints of classical dance felt wrong to her, though, and she felt like an outsider.  She has returned to her roots, dancing the eagle dance with a set of eagle wings and now has a daughter of her own.  Remembering how people used to say her name wrong, she corrects those who mispronounce her daughter’s: “Every time someone says our names, they are speaking a language that still exists, and a culture that we still honor, despite many attempts to wipe it out forever.”  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This beautiful story will resonate with anyone who is trying to find their place in the world.  It celebrates both dance and indigenous cultures, with lovely illustrations filled with gorgeous colors that play with light, shadows, and patterns.

Cons:  No back matter.

Before Music: Where Instruments Come From by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Madison Safer

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  Each section of this book begins with a person observing a natural phenomenon, like the sound rocks make when banged against each other, the sound of a silk thread being plucked, or the sound of air through a reed.  From there, the narrative looks at how that particular item inspired the creation of musical instruments, instruments in different categories (“rock instruments that are struck”, “rock instruments that are blown”) and musical innovators.  Includes a list of selected sources and instructions for making your own instrument.  88 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An excellent addition to any music library, encouraging readers to look deeper into the history of music and instruments, with fabulous illustrations portraying instruments and musicians.

Cons:  This book is almost 15 inches tall, which felt unnecessarily large and unwieldy to read.  Also, I would have appreciated a table of contents, index, and/or glossary to give a little more structure.

Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son/Cultivando a un artista: la historia de un jardinero paisajista y su hijo by John Parra

Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Summary:  The narrator spends the day helping his father with his landscaping business.  It’s hard work, and one of his classmates snubs the boy when he sees him working in his yard.  But visiting the dump and choosing plants from the nursery is fun, and his dad’s enthusiasm about his business is contagious. Everywhere they go, the boy pulls out his sketchbook and draws what he sees.  Their last visit is to a couple who want to transform their overgrown yard.  When the boy gets home, he begins to create a design for the new yard.  His dad agrees to use his plans.  “You have a gift,” says his mother, as he looks at all the sketches he’s made of his day.  Includes an author’s note about his father’s landscape business and how he helped his dad as a child.  Available in English and Spanish. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This would make a great mentor text for memoir/narrative writing. Belpré honoree John Parra brings to life a story which is clearly close to his heart.

Cons:  I would have enjoyed seeing a side-by-side illustration of the boy’s blueprint and the finished yard he helped design.

Music Is a Rainbow by Bryan Collier

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  A boy struggles between forces of light and darkness in his life, starting with his feelings when his father leaves each day for work and when his mother gets sick and has to go away on his seventh birthday.  His father tells him to always “leave room for that rainbow to find you.  Broken is beautiful.”  The boy discovers the rainbow through music, but the magical feeling doesn’t last long.  He’s tempted into trouble by a group of friends known as the South Side Bandits, and before long they’re taking joy rides on the ice cream truck.  One day they decide to break into the rec center.  While his friends are trashing the place, the boy discovers a piano and sits down to play.  “The sounds became music, and the music changed into colors.  The rainbow had found him.  And then that feeling lasted forever.”  Includes an author’s note citing the influences of Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and Quincy Jones on this story.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Bryan Collier’s beautiful collage illustrations illuminate this story of a boy trying to find his way through difficult times.  I’m excited that I may actually get to meet Bryan Collier today at the Eric Carle Museum’s Collage Day!

Cons:  I found the story a little confusing, and I think that younger kids would definitely need some guidance to understand what’s going on.

Ablaze with Color: A Story of Alma Thomas by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Loveis Wise

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  As a child in Georgia, Alma Thomas loved observing the bright colors around her and making things with her hands.  She and her three younger sisters weren’t allowed to go to the white school or library, so their parents filled their house with books and teachers.  When Alma was 15, her family moved to Washington, D.C. to give their daughters more opportunities, and Alma graduated from high school and college, where she studied art.  She taught for many years before retiring at age 69 and pursuing her own art.  Using the bright colors she had loved as a child, she created paintings inspired by nature and by space travel.  Alma was the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York.  Years after her death in 1978, Barack and Michelle Obama chose one of Alma Thomas’s paintings to hang in the White House, the first artwork there by a Black woman.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, photos, a timeline of events in Alma’s life and the United States during her lifetime, and a list of sources.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  I had never heard of Alma Thomas, but I loved her story and the illustrations inspired by her art.  While the intended audience may not appreciate the fact that Alma’s art career took off after she turned 70, I found that inspiring.

Cons:  It seemed at odds with the theme of the book that the photo of Alma was in black and white.