Book Review Wednesday: Picture Book Biographies Part 1

Thanks to those of you who have been nudging me to post on my blog again. Since there have been NO Book Review Wednesday’s for about a month, it is high time I get back to work. Get ready for a quick discussion of picture book biographies.

I’ve been immersed in PB biographies recently as I am working on one myself. I find that the most effective writing in this genre comes from authors who remember the importance of story and language without getting caught up in trying to relay too many facts. Thirty-two pages is not a lot of space. The author of a PB biography has to narrow her focus and find a logical and kid friendly entry point into the life she wishes to relate. In the two books below, the text is relatively simple but each book contains author’s notes or historical notes to tell the reader (or teacher or parent) more.


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First up is An Eye for Color: The story of Josef Albers. Josef Albers was an artist and designer who studied with the Bauhaus school in Germany until the Nazis closed it. Albers moved to the US and taught at Black Mountain College near Asheville, NC and then Yale. His study of color interaction using large squares of color is taught in every modern color theory class. As a child, the author, Natasha Wing, was Albers’ neighbor.  

The text for An Eye for Color gives the reader a theme for Albers life and the hook for every kid on the first page of the book, “Josef Albers saw art in the simplest things.” The rest of the book explores some these things: doors, collages made from junkyard finds, artistic accidents, and finally the squares of color that became his life’s work. The illustrator, Julia Breckenreid, takes on a large part of the storytelling responsibility by conveying the work of Albers through her illustrations. Her use of large fields of color in various geometric shapes effectively demonstrates Albers’ theories on the interaction of colors and mimics his paintings. 

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In José! Born to Dance, Susanna Reich uses lively, lyrical, rhythmic language that mimics Limon’s dance technique. Reich builds character by weaving Spanish phrases and words into the text. (A glossary appears in the front matter of the book but really the context of most phrases makes the Spanish understandable.)

Reich hooks the child reader by starting the story with 15 pages about Limon’s childhood. Instead of focusing on historic events that might seem dry to a child, Reich magnifies the feelings associated with the events: the happiness and energy of José’s dancing birth in Mexico, his quiet visits with his grandmother, experiencing new things such as theater, being scared during a bullfight, feeling left out as a new kid in America, and his feeling of inadequacy as an art student in Manhattan. Every child can relate to José’s feelings even if the events of his life are foreign. The event that changes José from an aspiring artist to an aspiring dancer takes place only four spreads from the end of the book.  Here, Reich still focuses on the emotion, José’s exuberance at finally finding the thing he was born to do.

I was wowed by the texture in the watercolor and color pencil drawings by illustrator Raul Colon. His color choices magnify the emotion in the Reich’s language.

I have a many other wonderful PB biography examples. Next week I’ll look at Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and André Carrilho. If you can’t wait until then, check out this archived post about Caldecott Honor winning A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams.

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