More Recent Nonfiction Picture Books: President-Plants-Protest-Princess Edition

As John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday approaches later this month, some new picture books portray various aspects of his legacy. Last month I reviewed Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President, and this month’s reviews include two more Kennedy books, along with an assortment of other interesting titles.

A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy's Big SpeechA Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey
Shana Corey’s A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech is denser than most picture books, perhaps because it tries to do so much. It is a serviceable biography of Kennedy wrapped around a narrative about how his convictions regarding civil rights were sometimes compromised by political considerations. In addition, the beginning and ending of this book invite readers to consider how they are part of history. A lot is going on in these pages.

The R. Gregory Christie illustrations render well-known figures in recognizable ways while also conveying a folk-art feel.

A Time to Act is a worthwhile book for helping young readers understand President Kennedy, segregation, and the civil rights movement, but they may also need help with understanding some of the content. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt is mentioned but isn’t identified. Jackie Robinson is described only as “the famous baseball player.” Passages from Kennedy’s speeches contain language that might also require simplification and explanation for the youngest readers.

A Time to Act provides clear messages about the importance of acting on our convictions and becoming actively involved in the important issues of our time.

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for an American IconWhen Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon by Natasha Wing
I did not know about this episode from Jackie Kennedy’s very full life. In her post-White House years, she led a successful campaign to save New York City’s Grand Central Station from destruction. I admire picture books that promote activism. This one will help young readers understand how the preservation of historical sites is frequently threatened, and how Jackie Kennedy used her celebrity and influence to make a positive difference. As author Natasha Wing writes, “The fight to save Grand Central changed how people viewed old buildings. Rather than tearing them down, preservationists now had a model for how to save historic buildings all over the country, protecting our precious heritage.” Some of the Alexandra Boiger illustrations are vivid while others are drabber; in each case, the color choices help create the mood for what is happening on the page.

Plant the Tiny SeedPlant the Tiny Seed by Christie Matheson
This interactive picture book about how nature turns seeds into flowers is perfect for reading aloud to groups or individuals. The simple text and appealing pictures leave plenty of space for reader involvement as they reinforce a child’s understanding of nature while also providing room for wonder.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest SongStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio
This is a tough one. “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the lynching of Black Americans, was Billie Holiday’s powerful signature. In concert and on record, her rendition was chilling and emotional.

So, Gary Golio’s attempt to develop a picture book based on Billie Holiday’s association with “Strange Fruit” is ambitious but fraught with the potential to be inappropriately graphic for some young readers. Golio seems aware of the tricky territory. The first part of the book deals with Billie Holiday’s origins and the obstacles she faced due to racism. The unfairness and danger of a black woman making her way in the white-dominated entertainment world is made clear but not in a way likely to be frightening to most young readers. When the song “Strange Fruit” is mentioned for the first time in the primary narrative, it is noted to be about lynching but Golio does not dwell on the song’s imagery. However, the back matter begins with a full page of the lyrics in large print, including “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” “bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” and “the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

Charlotte Riley-Webb’s illustrations are a revelation. Bold strokes, bright colors, and swirling shapes convey the story and create tension. I especially liked the rough textures on the surface of some of the paintings.

It’s not my place to say whether a book is or isn’t right for all audiences. All I know is that few books are right for everybody. Strange Fruit is one where the adults involved will need to think about whether it suits the needs of young people who will experience it under their guidance.

Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval PrincessWho Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess by Bridget Heos
Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess is an excellent picture book for those drawn to the allure of fairy tale/Disney-style princesses. Bridget Heos uses the well-known traits of those princesses as background knowledge for comparing more historically accurate depictions of medieval royal life. Although some aspects of that medieval life were grim and gross, Heos explains it all with humor, accompanied by Migy’s Disney-esque illustrations. This book will enrich students’ understanding of medieval royalty without ruining what they love about the classic movie princesses.

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of InventionsWhoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker water toy, is the same guy who figured out how to supply power to the Galileo orbiter’s computer system on its exploratory journey to Jupiter. Who knew?

The power of applying an inventive mind to problems that need solutions is the theme of Whoosh!. Sometimes the inventions hit the mark, sometimes they miss, and sometimes they end up being useful in some other way. No spoilers here, but inventing the Super Soaker was not Lonnie Johnson’s original goal as he worked on a completely different idea. In addition to exploring what it means to be an inventor, author Chris Barton acknowledges the cultural obstacles faced by Johnson as a bright African-American in the middle of the 20th Century.

Whoosh! will appeal to a wide range of young readers even as it delivers important lessons about persistence, curiosity, and how learning and schooling are not always the same.

You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?!You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! by Jonah Winter
In April I reviewed the newest Jonah Winter baseball book, Mickey Mantle:  The Commerce Comet.  If you know a reader who liked that one, You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! is another picture book in Jonah Winter’s series that revisits earlier baseball eras and makes the players (and managers) accessible to today’s young readers. Casey Stengel was, at first, a player with limited skills. As Stengel himself said, “I was not successful as a ballplayer, as it was a game of skill.” Stengel then built a knowledge base from participating in thousands of baseball games and used it to transform himself into one of the most successful managers of all time. Winter presents insights on managing a baseball team and Stengel’s life in a conversational, humorous tone with echoes of something like a tall tale. Barry Blitt’s illustrations convey a similar tone as he finds a sweet spot between comic depictions and fine water-colors.

I hope some of these titles are just right for you and the young readers in your life.  As always, thank you for reading.  I welcome your questions and comments.

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