The Children's Book Compass

Archive for the ‘Biography & Nonfiction’ Category

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say.  (2011).  63 pages.  Scholastic.  Grades 5-8.  Autobiography.

Allen Say’s books have long been my favorites.  His books have received numerous awards.  Grandfather’s Journey won the Caldecott Medal and The Boy of the Three-Year Nap received a Caldecott Honor.   This new book, Drawing from Memory, provides a narrative of how Say came to be such a recognized artist and writer.  As the jacket flap states, the book is “Part memoir, part graphic novel, part narrative history. . . “   Say crafts his account using original illustrations created with watercolors, pencil and pen and ink together with photographs and a fascinating narrative to tell his story growing up in Japan from his birth in 1937.   He went to live on his own just before his thirteen birthday.  Even though his family disapproved he began to learn to be an artist.  He finds a mentor/teacher, a Sensei, who changes his life and provides him with deep instruction on being an artist.  At sixteen Say went with his father to the United States.   There the book ends.   This book is outstanding for several reasons.  First, it is an account of how a young person finds a way to follow his heart.  Second, it is testament to perseverance in following a dream.  Third, it is an intriguing story of growing up in the Japanese culture prior to, during and after World War II.


Jane Goodall writes in her message at the end of Me…Jane,  that, “The life of each one of us matters in the scheme of things …”  The following biographies of women demonstrate how each woman made contributions that still matters to us today.

Me … Jane by Patrick McDonnell.  (2011).  Pages not numbered.  Little Brown.  Ages 6-12.  Biography.

This beautifully crafted biography tells the story of Dr. Jane Goodall’s early life in simple pictures and text.  McDonnell emphasizes Jane’s zest for learning about nature, and how her talent for making observations in nature began.  In her investigations, Jane takes her stuffed toy chimpanzee, named Jubilee, everywhere.  A black and white photograph on the title page shows Jane as a child holding Jubilee.  The title is taken from the books Jane read about Tarzan of the Apes, “in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa.  Jane dreamed of a life in Africa, too.”  The book ends with a color photograph of Jane in Africa reaching out to a baby chimp – her dream realized.  Two pages of actual notes, drawings and puzzles made by Jane as a child show her childhood explorations.  More information about Jane’s life and her discoveries is in the back matter with another photo of her with Jubilee and a message from Jane today.  She writes,  “… I encourage everyone, especially young people, to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment.”  The last page in the book features a cartoon that Jane made of her life in the forest at the Bombe Stream Game Reserve.  Ornamental engravings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enrich the pages throughout narrative.

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter. (2011).  Pages not numbered.  Schwartz & Wade Books.  Ages5-12.  Biography.

This book compliments Me … Jane.  Winter’s graceful narrative describes more about Jane’s life in Africa and her perseverance, patience and hard work to learn about the lives of the chimps.  It also explains how her talent for observation made her discoveries possible, “Now Jane watched every day, all day – even huddled in the rain.”  Winter includes quotations from Jane’s journal – “I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets…” she wrote.  Winter’s patterned, detailed illustrations provide even more information about Jane’s life.  Guide children in comparing the two biographies of Jane’s life and give them opportunities to examine these books as mentor texts.

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin.  Illus. by Bill Farnsworth.  (2011). 40 pages.  Holiday House.  Ages 11 and up.  Biography.

This biography of a little known heroine of the Holocaust begins with a quote from Sendler, “I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning, you don’t ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help.”  Her quote captures the nature of Sendler’s unselfish work in smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto starting in 1942.  She worked with the underground to find ways to save the doomed children.  “Barely 4 feet 11 inches tall, she risked her life when she disguised herself as a nurse and used a forged medical pass to enter the ghetto.  Irena planned ingenious ways to smuggle out the children.”   Rubin’s Afterword tells how Sendler’s story finally was told when the Communist regime collapsed in 1989. Extensive back matter lists a variety of resources, source notes and testimonials.

Tillie The Terrible Swede: How One Woman, A Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History by Sue Stauffacher.  Illustrated by Sarah McMenemy.  (2011).  Pages not numbered.  Knopf.  Ages 6-11.

When we see woman cyclists today in their tight racing togs, let’s remember Tillie who first created an outfit that discarded the voluminous dress of the period for a tightly fitted garment to become a “whirling sensation!”  She won races and set records earning for herself the nickname – “Tillie the Terrible Swede.”  In the late 1890’s she began her recording breaking career and continued through the early 1900’s.  McMenemy’s illustrations energize the story with drawings that show Tillie sprinting across the page in her races.  The back end papers show a time line of “Tillie’s Cycling Victories.”

Liberty’s Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus by Erica Silverman.  Illustrated by Stacey Schuett.  (2011).  Pages not numbered.  Dutton.  Ages 8-12.

Emma Lazarus penned the poem engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  This book emphasizes her life as a writer and her work to help impoverished immigrants in New York City..  Silverman describes how she kept a writer’s notebook, “Emma found inspiration everywhere.  She filled up one notebook after another with poetry.”  She was inspired and taught by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He gave her advice and recommended books for her to read.  Her work for immigrants and her skill as a poet came together when she was asked to write a poem to help raise money for the statue’s pedestal.   Schuett’s color infused illustrations extend the text.  The back matter gives more details about the poem and an extensive bibliography with websites and books for further reading.



These biographies are each about men who made major contributions.  All of these books will interest a wide range of ages.  Since children today are so oriented towards visual expression, the picture book format of these books will make them more appealing.

Ben Franklin His Wit and Wisdom From A-Z by Alan Schroeder.  Illustrated by John O’Brien.  (2011).  Pages not numbered.  Holiday House.  Ages 8-14.

What a clever format – a biography in the form of an alphabet book. Schroeder chronicles Franklin’s inventions, contributions, and life experiences with items for each letter of the alphabet.  For example, D includes: Deborah his wife, the Declaration of Independence, Doll – the French made a Franklin doll, and a Duet, he played with his daughter.  Each entry is explained with a short annotation.  Quotations, and adages from Franklin’s almanacs and writings are sprinkled throughout the pages.  There is humorous drawings, one for each of the entries, on each page.  They add to the fun of discovering the genius and amazing versatility of one of our country’s Founding Fathers.

The Adventures of Mark Twain by Huckleberry Finn with considerable help from Robert Burleigh and Barry Blitt.  (2011).   Pages not numbered.  Atheneum.  Ages 9-14.

Burleigh sparks his biography of Twain with a narration in the voice of Twain’s character, Huckleberry Finn.  A “Warning to the Reader” at the beginning advises that the author of the book “… is NOT A WRITER!”  The warning goes on to explain that the reader needs to be prepared for the way Mr. Finn speaks.  Finn’s colorful first person dialogue enlivens the account of Twain’s life.  “This ain’t intendin’ to be some windy bioografy.”  Finn divides his account into logical chunks, “About When Sam Was a Boy,”  “About Sam the Steamboat Captain.”  About Sam Becomin’ a Writer” and more.  Children will chuckle over Twain’s adventures and learn about his colorful life at the same time.  Blitt’s action-packed illustrations feature Twain cavorting through his life all the time watched over by Finn.  A timeline at the end fills in some of the gaps in the chronicle..

When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan by Gary Golio.  Illustrated by Marc Burckhardt.  (2011).  Pages not numbered.  Little Brown.  Ages 8-12.

This account of the early life of musician, Bob Dylan, will introduce him and his hero, Woody Guthrie, to young readers.  Golio explains, “Woody was everything Bob wanted to be: a roamin’ and ramblin’ singer and storyteller who’d played for striking miners and starving farmers.  … he had written more than a thousand songs – about dust storms and tornadoes, heroes, hobos, and gunslinging outlaws.  He played country, blues, and folk music.  His song “This Land Is Your Land” was a national favorite.”  When Dylan learns that his hero is alive and ill he travels to New York City to meet Woody.  There he plays for Woody who is in the hospital and keeps visiting him.  The Afterword tells how in “meeting Woody, Bob came to know some of the most talented and important figures in American folk music.”  He then went on to become a famous musician.  The acrylic and oil portraits and illustrations flesh out the characteristics of the two men.  Sources & Resources are listed in the back matter for children to find out more about these musicians by reading more, listening to their audio recording and watching videos.  .  An author’s note describes how Golio was inspired to write the book by Bob’s search for his guiding star.  Finally, the back matter lists the sources of the many quotations from Bob and Woody that appear throughout the text.

This last summer was filled with teaching summer school classes and a dream vacation to Europe.  One of the best parts was attending the IBBY conference in Santiago De Compostela, Spain.  Since returning home, I have been reading some wonderful books.  This post will focus on the excellent nonfiction and biographies I found.  These titles will tantalize the reading taste buds of youngsters who like to read about things that are “real and have really happened.” So I am back to blogging this time about biography and nonfiction.

Dave the Potter Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban C. Hill.  Illus. by Bryan Collier.  (2010).  Little, Brown and Company.  Pages not numbered.  All Ages.  Biography.

This unusual and stunning biography touches the heart as the sparse, lyrical text and powerful illustrations team to unfold the story of a slave, whose pottery and the poems he inscribed on them made him an important American artist.  The poetic text concentrates on Dave’s process of making the pottery.  The book ends with, “But before the jar/completely hardened,/Dave picked up a stick/and wrote to let us know/that he was here./I wonder where/is all my relation/friendship to all–/and, every nation.”  Collier uses collage and watercolors to show different perspectives of making the pots.  Some are a series of close-ups of Dave’s hands molding the pots.  Other images show the environment where Dave worked.  At the end Hill provides more information about Dave, his poems and a photograph of five pots.  Both the author’s and illustrator’s notes tell about the inspiration and research for the book.  A bibliography and list of websites offer ways for students to learn more about Dave.

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy.  (2010).  Simon & Schuster.  Pages not numbered.  Grades 1-5.  Biography.

This book has lots of kid appeal from the endpapers that feature colorful bubble gum balls on a bright pink background to the last pages with “Facts about Gum” and “More Facts About Gum.”  McCarthy concentrates on how Walter Diemer, an accountant for a candy and gum factory, got stuck on inventing a new kind of gum, bubble gum.  Walter “spent months playing with different mixtures” until the mixture “bubbled and popped.”’ Walter thought the mixture needed some color.  ““Pink coloring was the only one I had at hand,”” so bubble gum became pink!  Walter’s “Dubble Bubble” became a success and Walter was promoted to Vice-President of the company.  The colorful comic illustrations add to the fun.  The facts at the end will intrigue children, i.e. “If you chew gum nonstop for a year straight you will lose eleven pounds (good luck with that, though!).”

Bulu: African Wonder Dog by Dick Houston. (2010).  Random House.  323 pages.  Grades 5-9.  Biography.

This is a great dog story but also an account of a remarkable couple, Anna and Steve Tolan.  The Tolans, former police officers, left their comfortable life in England for new adventures in Zambia.  There they created a refuge for orphaned animals and a wildlife education center for the children of the area.  The Tolans acquired Bulu as a puppy and he is the star of their story.  They were warned about having a pet in the African bush, and some of Bulu’s harrowing adventures show why that warning was accurate.  He has encounters with a cobra, crocodile and lions.  Bulu has heart and unusual courage and he survives.  He fosters and nurtures many of the orphans – monkeys, warthogs, a baboon, a bushbuck, a baby elephant.  Black and white photographs enrich the text and show Bulu with the other animals.  There is humor and suspense in this book.  It would make an excellent choice to read aloud.

How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look At Unusual Animal Partnerships by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. (2010).  Houghton Mifflin.  Pages not numbered.  Grades 1-4.  Nonfiction.

Jenkins and Page provide young readers with fascinating facts about animal symbiosis.  The text describes how the animals have formed relationships in which each animal helps the other.  For example, the oxpecker bird “debugs” large African animals like the giraffe, rhino, deer and buffalo by searching “for ticks and insects, pulling them off with its beak.”  The bird also warns its host when predators are approaching.  The collage illustrations feature each host animal and its partner with appealing details.  The book design makes it readable and attractive.  The back matter provides more information about each featured animal and symbiosis.  This is a book that children will pour over and return to again and again.


The next three books are outstanding new entries in the “Scientists in the Field” series.  Together the books demonstrate how scientists around the world are working toward saving our environment and the creatures that dwell in it.  Each book features stunning, full color, photographs that show close-ups of the creatures, the environments they live in and the scientists at work.  The writing in each book gathers the reader into the narrative with stories from the field.   These books are also outstanding in the way their text features, like sidebars, captions, insets, glossaries, indexes, further resources, guides to helping save the creatures, maps, bibliographies, appendixes are used to develop and extend the informative texts.

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns.  Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz.  (2010).  Houghton Mifflin.  66 pages. Grades 5-8.  Nonfiction.

The first sentence in this book makes the reader an active participant in the story.   “Put on your veil, grab your hive tool, and light up your smoker… …we’re going into a beehive.”  Burns first explains the vital role played by honey bees in pollinating crops, fruit and nut trees and vegetable plants.  Then she describes colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious scourge that is wiping out hives all over our country, and how scientists are working to understand how to combat it.  The reader learns about bees and the ways bee keepers are taking care of them.  Photographs of the bees in the hive and at their work are detailed and exciting to see.  It is especially intriguing to learn about the scientists’ careful detective work in addressing the possible causes of CCD.  An appendix provides more information about this amazing insect.

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery.  Photographs by Nic Bishop.  (2010).  Houghton Mifflin.  74 pages. Grades 5-8.  Nonfiction.

Montgomery and Bishop have other prize winning books in this series.  This is sure to be another winner for them.  This book tells about a project on a remote island off the New Zealand coast to save the last ninety-one kakapo parrots on earth.  Compelling writing paints visual portraits of the unique parrots and the scientists’ efforts to save them.

It’s hours past midnight.  You’d think any self-respecting parrot would be asleep.  But not Lisa.

No, despite the late hour, this huge, soft, moss-green bird, looking somewhat like a parakeet who has eaten one side of the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland and grown into an eight-pound giant, decides this is a great time to waddle out of her nest—a nest that’s not in a tree, like a normal parrot’s, but underground.

A large size photograph of the bird accompanies these opening paragraphs.  Montgomery and Bishop became part of the story because they spent ten-days on the island learning about the work of New Zealand’s National Kakapo Recovery Team.  One of the last photographs shows Montgomery in “a dazzling encounter” with one of the parrots.

Project Seahorse by Pamela S. Turner.   Photographs by  Scott Tuason.  (2010).  Houghton Mifflin.   57 pages.  Grades 5-8.  Nonfiction.

This book also profiles an animal, the seahorse, which is in trouble because of environmental damage and overfishing.  The underwater photographs of the appealing creatures dazzle.  A variety of the species are pictured.  This book focuses on the coral reefs off Handumon, a small village on an island in the Philippines.  There the two women scientists who have founded Project Seahorse work tirelessly with local fishermen, villages and their research team to protect the seahorses and the livelihood of local fishing families.  The photos of the scuba divers, fishermen at work and the gorgeous life of the coral reef compel the reader’s attention.  Some chapters are just devoted to describing the unique aspects of the life cycle of the seahorse like the way the male seahorse gives birth from his brood pouch.  Other chapters outline the threats to this gentle creature like traditional Chinese Medicine that uses dried, ground up seahorses for medicine.  A final chapter describes the positive outcomes that have come about through the efforts of Project Seahorse.

Pointing the Direction to New Books for Children and Teens

Marilyn Carpenter, PhD.

Contact Marilyn

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