Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Biographies for the Younger Set

Review by Colleen Mondor

Children do a lot of biography learning in school, but all too often these are books about the same people over and over again: Washington, Lincoln, and King, along with a host of patriot rabble rousers (Adams, Jefferson, and Revere) a few denizens of the Underground Railroad (hello Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) and the occasional anointed literary great (Shakespeare, Twain, and Ingalls Wilder—because everybody reads Laura in the third grade). There are a ton of other interesting true life options out there however and when they come as beautifully packaged as the few I include here, then they are pretty hard to pass up. I'm especially happy when I discover someone completely new through one of these picture book biographies which is exactly what happened with Bonnie Christensen's Django.

Django Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy camp in 1910 and grew up to become one of the world's greatest jazz guitarists. He also overcame a monumental burn injury to his hand which seemed a certain career-ender but instead led to a greater commitment to his craft. Through the text and lush, rich paintings (I can't emphasize their power enough) Christensen details the events surrounding the accident as well as Django's earlier journey to the streets of Paris and the leading jazz clubs of the day. His decision to keep with the guitar in spite of the damage to his hands is particularly riveting and those passages stand in sharp contrast to the more carefree depictions of his life making music as a boy and young man. What really makes Django such an interesting book though is the very nature of Christensen's chosen subject. Most readers will likely have not heard of him but will immediately become curious about his music (a laudatory quote from Willie Nelson doesn't hurt). Django Reinhardt is a quirky choice for a children's biography but it works well here and honestly made me want to discover his music too.

Author Wendy Macdonald takes a somewhat fictional approach in her story Galileo's Leaning Tower Experiment. Focusing on Galileo's disproval of one of Aristotle's rules, she introduces a young boy named Massimo who meets the Italian thinker and helps him perform experiments proving that things fall at the same speed, regardless of weight, but dependent upon distance. It's a bit of a complicated concept for elementary school readers but she frames it in a series of drop experiments that make everything clear, and also allows Massimo's contribution to make a statement about class and society especially when it comes to education.

Massimo meets Galileo after he sees the boy dropping food from a bridge down to his fisherman uncle. The sight of the falling objects makes Galileo question Aristotle and leads to a discussion with the boy. Massimo later conducts some experiments on his own and goes to share what he has learned with Galileo but is almost barred from the university because of his economic class. Galileo steps up, forms a partnership with the boy and after a series of drops from the leaning tower they prove Aristotle wrong and further, that experimentation is crucial to science. Massimo is invited to continue learning and the author follows up with a note explaining just what Galileo proved and how critical experimentation was to his success.

Honestly, you just have to love Galileo. The guy was pretty much awesome and did more in his lifetime than pretty much anyone else in history. I love a book about Galileo for kids because it will get them curious to see what else he has done and Massimo is an excellent way to humanize the "great man" and make him more accessible. Paolo Rui's illustrations are deep and luminous - they bring a lot of beauty to the pages which is perfect for this period and subject (and how great—he's Italian!).

Leonardo da Vinci is another endlessly fascinating figure for readers and has been studied for centuries. Gene Barretta takes a different approach with Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci by focusing on his ideas and inventions and how they can be found in modern times. This is a great way to make someone from the distant past relevant to contemporary kids; while they might not be able to completely grasp just how long ago da Vinci lived, they will certainly see that his plans for a glider, parachute or projector look similar to the machines and apparatus we take for granted today. It doesn't hurt that Barretta's illustrations show an endlessly happy and industrious da Vinci alternately at work in a tower surrounded by papers, with birds while studying flight for his ornithopter or stacking rocks for his single-span bridge design. The impression here is of a man who looks remarkably like a thinner Santa Claus and was always taking notes and planning projects. You couldn't ask for a better example of a solid worth ethic or proof that dreamers can also be doers. Fun, surprising and inspiring, Neo Leo is a welcome addition to titles on this most impressive man.

One subject I never expected to find in a children's biography was Antoni Gaudi and yet Rachel Rodriguez's Building on Nature brings a bright eye to the life of the talented architect and makes his whimsical designs easily accessible to the younger crowd. From the very beginning, Julie Paschkis infuses an enormous amount of color and energy into the pages with her illustrations which are critical to the book's success. Gaudi was known for his over-the-top designs and both author and illustrator understand that and incorporate his bold style into their story.

From his earliest days, Rodriguez makes it clear that Gaudi was a curious child fascinated by nature. He set out to be an architect after high school and designed all sorts of things, from "his own desk" to "lampposts for the city." It is his buildings that drew the most interest however, and continue to transfix and captivate all those who discover them. Rodriguez makes it clear why children would find Gaudi particularly interesting when writing about his project, Vicens House: "Gaudi brings nature inside the house, too. Leaves climb up the walls. Cherries hang overhead. Birds wheel around and soar to the sky." In page after she shows his inventive designs from curving ramps to an underground chapel built based on a model "that resembles a colony of bats." Celebrated now in his city of Barcelona and around the world, Gaudi is, in fact, a perfect subject for children. Rodriguez captures his playful spirit but unquestioning dedication and Paschkis shows again and again how appealing his talent was. Building on Nature was certainly a surprise but a most delightful one!

Finally, the entire "Who Was" series is a winner to me as it introduces elementary-level readers who have moved past the picture book stage to famous people in world history without talking down to them. You could easily give these books to teenagers who are reluctant readers and they would find them just as enjoyable and informative as a nine-year old—which is no easy feat. Who Was Queen Elzabeth? by June Eding is a recent winner, bringing the girl who would be queen down from her pedestal and into the realm of any child who has ever felt like a pawn for the adults around her. Eding starts at the beginning with the baby born to the ill-fated alliance of crazy King Henry VIII and seriously doomed Anne Boleyn. From there she very carefully winds her way through the quagmire that is British royal politics—with wives dying left and right, kids dying, heirs not reproducing before they die and finally Elizabeth standing as the only logical choice left. Eding writes as she herself can hardly believe how crazy the circumstances are that find Elizabeth taking the throne and keeps reading shaking their heads with one twist after another. From there it's all political intrigue, assassination plots, wars, and suspected secret love affairs. Clearly, this is history of the exciting kind and Eding keeps it hopping every blessed inch of the way. That's why the series is so good though—the authors know what they need to do to keep the readers engaged and they do that, ever single time.

Nancy Harrison's black and white illustrations are a nice complement to the text this go-round as well, and the color cover is startling, strange and funny as usual. I know I'm making Who Was Queen Elizabeth? sound almost workmanlike to a certain degree but that's what it is—solidly written, easy to read, interesting and fun. What more could you possibly want in biographies for young.


By Bonnie Christensen
Roaring Brook 2009
ISBN 1596434228

Galileo's Leaning Tower Experiment
By Wendy Macdonald
Illustrated by Paolo Rui
Charlesbridge 2009
ISBN 1-57091-870-4

Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci
By Gene Barretta
Henry Holt 2009
ISBN 0-8050-8703-6

Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi
By Rachel Rodriguez
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Henry Holt 2009
ISBN 0-8050-8745-1

Who Was Queen Elizabeth?
By June Eding
Illustrated by Nancy Harrison
Grosset & Dunlap 2008
ISBN 0-448-44839-8
102 pages


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