So far this year, I’ve been posting a monthly round-up of nonfiction picture books. May was kind of complicated, and I didn’t make it, so I have two months of titles to share with you. As it turns out, half of the books prominently feature women who endured obstacles of various kinds and, through persistence, ended up with accomplishments that benefit all of us. I will share those seven books in this post, and seven more titles in an upcoming post.
When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intended to rebuke Senator Elizabeth Warren during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, McConnell uttered the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted.” As it turns out, McConnell created a new rallying cry for women: “She Persisted.”
She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton’s new picture book, isn’t overtly political, but it capitalizes on McConnell’s phrase to present thirteen American women who pushed through barriers to accomplish feats that benefit all of us.
Some of these women were quite young at the time of their difficulties. These will resonate especially clearly with school-age readers. Each of the thirteen women is explained with a one-paragraph “she persisted” story supported by a quote from the woman herself and two Alexandra Boiger illustrations, one showing the subject at the time of her perseverance and another demonstrating the larger effect of her persistence.
I hope grown-ups will help young readers find their way to She Persisted. It’s an appealing, useful book.
Last year Jess Keating’s Pink Is for Blobfish was one of the most celebrated nonfiction picture books of 2016. Her new book Shark Lady shows that Keating has a knack for bringing nature to young readers.
Shark Lady is the story of marine biologist Eugenie Clark who turned a childhood fascination with sharks into a lifelong passion. One of the strengths of this book is how Keating presents in clear language Eugenie Clark’s specific scientific discoveries and contributions. Shark Lady also conveys the importance of focus, study, and determination in face of obstacles, such as those facing women of Clark’s generation who were discouraged from pursuing careers in science.
Jess Keating’s book follows by a few months another picture book about Eugenie Clark, Heather Lang’s Swimming with Sharks. Although both books are worthwhile, Keating’s is more colorful and whimsical, and generally lighter in tone than the dramatic, realistic approach of Lang’s Swimming with Sharks.
Margaret and the Moon is a nonfiction picture book about Margaret Hamilton, a young girl who loves mathematics and applies her fascination to learning how to write code for computers. Eventually, she goes to work for NASA where her coding skills are important to the Apollo program. When the Apollo 11 lunar module develops a last-minute programming glitch, everyone turns to Margaret. Fortunately, Margaret had anticipated the possibility of this exact problem and easily solves it with her coding skills.
Dean Robbins tells Margaret story with a light touch. The mathematics is shown as fun, and the drama of the Apollo program is basically presented as more math fun. Lucy Knisley’s comic-style pictures contribute to the light touch, but they also provide more in-depth representations of some of the math for those who look a little deeper.
In a time when coding is becoming an integral part of the standard curriculum, an appealing story featuring code can be a worthwhile addition to a home, library, or classroom collection.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines begins quietly as Maya plays with her brother in the woods near their home. On other days, “she searched for birds in the forest.” From its first pages, this picture book biography explores the habits of mind that lead Maya to become one of the world’s foremost architects. Her parents were artists who encouraged freedom of thought after fleeing oppression in China and Maya learns to think “with her hands as well as her mind.” The creative process that led to Maya’s design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D. C. is highlighted as a natural extension of her on-going artistic development.
Dow Phumiruk’s quiet, subdued illustrations support Jeanne Walker Harvey’s story of a contemplative young girl who embraces challenges as she innovatively seeks to build structures and shape spaces where people can live, work, think, and explore.
Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom is a completely satisfying story for young animal lovers. Suzi Eszterhas is a photographer at a Kenyan wildlife reserve. She lives in a tent where wild animals roam freely nearby. When a baby serval, a breed of wildcat, is left alone, rangers ask her to be a foster mom and prepare him for an eventual return to the wild. Moto is cute and cuddly, especially at the beginning, but Eszterhas never loses sight of the goal of returning Moto to the wild.
The primary text of Moto and Me involves how Moto became stranded, and the creative ways that Eszterhas balanced being playful and instructive. For a nonfiction semi-scientific book, there is a fair amount of emotion that will touch readers. Moto and Me includes seventeen chapters, each two or three pages in length, so this has a larger scope than many picture books. Third grade is probably the sweet spot for Moto and Me.
The masterful photographs are the heart of this book. Baby Moto is irresistible, and as the months go by, we can easily see how he becomes a predator while still maintaining a connection to Eszterhas. Beyond the story of a baby animal and its foster mom, Moto and Me is also instructive about nature conservancy, Kenya, photography, and the developmental process of a wildcat.
Well, this picture book is nothing short of adorable. Naturalist Anna Merz sought to protect endangered African animal species. As she works at an animal sanctuary, she discovers a baby rhino abandoned by her mother. So, she takes her home, nurses her to health, pampers her, and names her Samia. Samia behaves like a fine dog, following Anna and showing her affection and attention. But rhinos grow beyond the practical limits of most houses. That doesn’t stop Samia though. She visits Anna’s house even after she is fully grown!
This charming story will captivate animal lovers. The pictures are warm and convey the emotions of each scene, as well as the Kenyan landscape. The back matter is excellent. Those who want more details about Anna and her work will find three pages of a fuller version of the story, as well as a bibliography of print and online sources related to Anna Merz and rhino rescues, including several videos.
I admire how Phil Bildner’s text assumes that most young readers today do not know about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, a fair assumption, even though those of us who are just a bit older clearly remember Chrissie and Martina. (I saw them play in the 1983 Virginia Slims of Dallas tournament. Although I saw them face other opponents in preliminary rounds, they would go on to meet in the finals.) As Bildner and artist Brett Helquist make the case for their rivalry being the greatest “in the history of sports,” Martina and Chrissie touches on issues of character and friendship, as well as the Cold War. The tone of the book is enthusiastically conversational, but overly repetitive use of two devices–boldface and repeating phrases with individual words as sentences (“Won. The. Match.”)–seems condescending to readers. Well-chosen words, inherently dramatic situations, and compelling artwork can convey emphasis at least as well as those self-conscious devices.
These reviews originally appeared on Goodreads, in some cases in slightly different form. As always, thank you for reading.