Book Review Wednesday: Picture Book Biographies 2

This is the second installment of a book review and discussion of picture book biographies. The first one is here, if you’d like to read it or I can just catch you up. Because PB biographies are so short, it is my opinion there needs to be a focus on language, and story over biographical information. Last week I talked about the hook and through line in the Joseph Albers book An Eye for Color, as well as the wonderful language in Susannah Reich’s José! Born to Dance. Today I’m going to discuss voice, and how illustrations can be used to create character.

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We start with Lita Judge’s, Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that Lita is a dear friend but don’t let your knowledge of that fact minimize the sincerity of my praise.

An author writing a picture book biography has to, as any picture book author, leave space for the illustrator to add to the story telling. Lita is an author/illustrator so the evolution of her pictures and text happen in a more streamlined and dynamic way. Throughout the revisions, new art might change the text, new text might change the art.

In this book, the art is a key part of the characterization of Tom “Yellowstone” Moran. Moran was an artist who set up his easel in the wilds of the American West. Lita is also a plein air painter. Plein air painters paint outside catching the light and colors of the landscape moment by moment. Lita brings this skill to the book. Sweeping canyon and mountain panoramas are interspersed with framed inset spot illustrations. What does this have to do with PB biographies?

Lita’s paintings create character. Not only by what they portray but also by how she portrays the landscape. The reader understands the humility, dedication, and sense of mission in Tom Moran by the way the natural world is depicted. The text confirms this. The reader learns how Tom took a chance by leaving Philadelphia and coming out to join a scientific party with only a letter of recommendation. How he presses on through the pain of riding a horse for the first time, camping in difficult conditions, and forging new trails. Each of the inset illustration is a window into a more intimate aspect of Moran’s character. They let the reader glimpse his sketchbook, as well as quiet or difficult moments for the title character.

At the end of the book, the reader gets to see the actual 1872, Thomas Moran oil painting of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  The grandeur of the landscape literally dwarfs humankind, as Moran has included tiny figures in the foreground.

Many author’s notes in PB biographies give more facts and dates that the author couldn’t fit into the text. Lita’s author/illustrator notes relay more of her research process and personal connection to the story.

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Jonah Winter is the author of many PB biographies and is so prolific that if you have an idea for a manuscript, you should check his list of titles first. His 2008 releases include books about Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente, and Muhammad Ali. In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor and the book I’m going to talk about today, You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!

The voice of Winter’s narrator for this book is chummy and knowledgeable. He quotes players and gives the reader a VIP view from the dugout. While the narrator is never identified, he seems like the crusty old guy you happen to sit next to in the cheap seats one day, the guy who keeps score of the hits, runs, and plays. Once you buy him a hot dog, he starts to tell you about how it was back in the day when he used to play as a Dodger.

The voice is so easy to listen to, the crusty old player is such a good storyteller, that the child listener/reader doesn’t even realize how long the guy has been talking. For those writers who obsess over word count, remember that first an foremost it is the author’s job to tell a good story. Winter packs the book with information from Koufax’s beginnings as an athletic teenager, to his Dodger debut, to how he sat out the World Series game that conflicted with Yom Kippur, to his surprise retirement. More information, in the form of baseball stats, peppers the pages of the book and give the info-loving kid plenty to read and memorize. A glossary of baseball terms finishes the book. The important thing here is that the voice Winter creates allows the reader to focus on story and take away those facts that seep in naturally.

If my voice sounds a little academic this week, it is because a lot of the text from the two blogs will be in my critical essay about Picture Book Biographies. Here’s a quick list of the books I’ve talked about and a few others that you may want to check out.

Bryant, Jennifer. A river of words : the story of William Carlos Williams. Grand Rapids  Mich.: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008. Print.

Judge, Lita. Yellowstone Moran : painting the American West. New York  N.Y.: Viking, 2009. Print.

Reich, Susanna. Jose! Born to Dance: The Story of Jose Limon (Tomas Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2005. Print.

Wing, Natasha. An eye for color : the story of Josef Albers. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009. Print.

Winter, Jonah. Barack. Katherine Tegen Books, 2008. Print.

—. Dizzy. 1st ed. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006. Print.

—. Frida. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2002. Print.

—. Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World. Schwartz & Wade, 2008. Print.

—. Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Atheneum, 2008. Print.

—. Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx. Bilingual. Atheneum, 2009. Print.

—. You never heard of Sandy Koufax?! 1st ed. New York  N.Y.: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009. Print.

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