Several new picture book biographies provide windows into the lives of remarkable women and men. I especially admire how the authors of many of these books present their subjects as resilient children who persevered through difficulties to become extraordinary adults in a wide range of fields.
The Funniest Man in Baseball: The True Story of Max Patkin by Audrey Vernick
With The Funniest Man in Baseball: The True Story of Max Patkin, Audrey Vernick delivers another wonderful nonfiction baseball picture book. After other excellent titles such as Brothers at Bat, The Kid from Diamond Street, Vernick continues to find fascinating baseball stories and deliver them in appealing books for young people. Her newest focuses on Max Patkin, The Clown Prince of Baseball.
Max Patkin, born in 1920, dreams of a career as major league baseball player. During World War II, Patkin pitches to Joe DiMaggio in an exhibition game. DiMaggio hits a home run, and Patkin chases him around the bases to the delight of the fans. When injuries derail Patkin’s dreams of becoming a baseball player, he remembers how his clowning brought such enjoyment. For the next few decades, Max Patkin performs at more than 4,000 major and minor league games without missing a scheduled appearance until his retirement at age 75. (Older readers may remember Patkin’s cameo in the 1988 Bull Durham film.)
Audrey Vernick’s text explains the historical context of Patkin’s life but also conveys the hilarity of his antics in a rollicking narrative voice. Jennifer Bower’s bright comic illustrations effectively support Vernick’s descriptions of Patkin’s physical comedy. Baseball fans will revel in The Funniest Man in Baseball, and it will also entertain those who enjoy stories with generous doses of humor.
Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady
The internment of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II is one of our country’s darkest self-inflicted bruises. Among those imprisoned were Japanese-American children from San Diego whose local librarian, Ms. Clara Breed, sent them away with books and stamped postcards so the children could stay in touch with her. As Ms. Breed received postcards telling her where the children were being held, she sent more books and more postcards, heroically maintaining correspondence with dozens of children throughout their plight.
Cynthia Grady’s nonfiction picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind is a remarkable testament not only to Ms. Breed but also to how the power of reading and writing can sustain us in difficult times. Young readers will relate to the children who are presented with sensitivity by illustrator Amiko Hirao as we see them reading their books and writing to Ms. Breed: “The youngest children wrote to Miss Breed about what they saw around them. The older children wrote about their living conditions and how they spent their days.”
Write to Me is an excellent window into an episode of American history too important to forget, expertly developed for children. In addition to Grady’s accessible text, Hirao’s drawings are realistic enough to foster empathy for the children without delving very far into the rawness of being torn away from their homes. Most page spreads include renderings of some of the brief notes written to Ms. Breed allowing readers to experience the postcards as primary texts. The book’s endpapers feature photos of Japanese American children traveling to and living in prison camps. Thorough back matter includes historical background on the internment program, Clara Breed’s life, “Selected History of Japanese People in the United States,” source notes, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading.
Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin
In Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing, Nancy Churnin delivers another inspiring picture book biography. Beginning with young Irving arriving in New York on a boat from Russia, readers understand that for Irving, music and his love for America were inseparable. As with most immigrants, life in America was at first difficult for Irving, but by following his passion for music, he eventually found success and made important contributions to America through his songs.
Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing can be used as a stand-alone biography, and is also useful for building background knowledge related to immigration, fine arts, New York, and patriotism. With its thorough back matter and especially fine binding, this is a worthwhile addition to school and home bookshelves.
Ella Fitzgerald by Mª Isabel Sánchez Vegara
Ella Fitzgerald is the first title I’ve read in the Lincoln Children’s Books series “Little People, Big Dreams” focusing on the childhoods of those who achieved cultural importance. Author Mª Isabel Sánchez Vegara finds the elements with kid appeal in Ella’s story: trouble in school, loss of a parent, and making new words and sounds with her voice. The discrimination faced by Fitzgerald and other black artists is downplayed but still signified by an illustration showing a sassy Ella posing by a “White Only” sign. Bàrbara Alca’s colorful illustrations reinforce the hopeful, uplifting message of this book and presumably the “Little People, Big Dreams” series.
The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner
Kate Messner’s nonfiction picture book The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs wraps the science of coral reefs around a biography of conservationist Ken Nedimyer. Young readers will easily understand Messner’s clear explanation of a natural coral reef’s growth process, although the human-assisted grafting process for establishing a new coral reef is more complex. The biographical treatment of Ken Nedimyer emphasizes how his professional commitment to coral reef conservation began with boyhood curiosity. Matthew Forsythe’s pastel paintings convey both the vibrant colors of a healthy coral reef and the fading glory of a coral reef as it begins to die. The back matter provides more details about coral reefs and a “How Can Kids Help?” section with suggestions for becoming involved in coral reef restoration.
The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell: Based on the Childhood of a Great American Artist by Candace Fleming
Joey whimsically collects unrelated objects that strike his fancy. Eventually, he realizes that he can make art by juxtaposing those items in surprising ways. Although Joey’s creative mind comes through in this picture book biography, readers may have a hard time understanding and empathizing with him. While the illustrations focus on the materials of Joey’s collection, the facial expressions are repetitive and inauthentic. Readers also need help knowing how to look at and appreciate the originality of Joey’s imagination, but when Joey’s artistic creations finally appear, they don’t look much different from the stuff sitting haphazardly in the barn. The explanations and small photographs of Cornell boxes in the back matter are helpful in explaining why Joseph Cornell is regarded as such an important artist, but I wish the main narrative provided more of that exposition.
Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky
Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship tells the side-by-side nonfiction stories of a service dog in training and a young woman recovering from the loss of her legs. Rescue, the service dog, initially doubts his abilities but eventually becomes confident in the wide range of ways he supports Jessica. Similarly, Jessica struggles emotionally and physically with the loss of her legs, but with Rescue’s help she bravely copes and adapts to the changes in her life. The back matter reveals that Jessica’s injuries were incurred in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but that aspect isn’t mentioned in the main narrative, concentrating instead on how a mutually beneficial relationship develops between Rescue and Jessica. Their story definitely has moments of drama, but the big lessons here involve empathy and resilience.
Many thanks to the authors and illustrators who teach important life lessons through the true stories of people who inspire them!
Some of these reviews originally appeared on Goodreads and elsewhere in slightly different form.