Noah Webster and his Words Author: Jeri Chase Ferris Illustrator: Vincent X. Kirsch
Young students should be familiar with the name Webster from their classroom dictionaries, but the man himself is another matter. Ferris honors the American spelling pioneer by bringing him to life through what Webster loved best — words. While Kirsch’s illustrations are impressive, what really singles out this picture book is its ability to incorporate definitions within the text without sounding contrived. Parents and children alike will be able to enjoy this tale of a great American revolutionary without being bogged down by too many hard words. Who knew reading about the dictionary could be so much fun? A
I Have a Dream Words By: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Paintings By: Kadir Nelson
This is not the first illustrated edition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic ”I Have a Dream” speech, but this picture book stands a notch above others thanks to Caldecott Honor winner Kadir Nelson’s beautifully rendered and sincerely moving paintings. It also comes with an audio CD of the historic 1963 speech. Still, I can’t help but want a little more. While this is certainly a great way to introduce children to one of this nation’s greatest speeches, I wish it had included the story of the man behind it. B+
Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America Author: Harold Holzer
Holzer’s accompaniment to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln gives young readers just the right amount of background to the film. While the movie only focuses on the president’s final months in office, Holzer covers everything from Lincoln’s boyhood to his shyness with women to the early days of the Civil War, all without getting too weighed down by the rich, yet dense, history. Featuring photographs, letters, speeches, memoirs, and more from the man himself, this is a must-read for young Lincoln scholars. Holzer’s Lincoln might not be a vampire hunter, but his story is a thrilling one nonetheless. A?
Marvin Makes Music Author: Marvin Hamlisch Illustrator: Jim Madsen
Published posthumously, Marvin Makes Music was written by the subject himself: Marvin Hamlisch, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-award winning musician and the youngest student ever accepted to the Juilliard School Pre-College Division. Here, Marvin’s just a kid who’s terrified by the prospect of auditioning for a prestigious music school. Young readers will sympathize with Marvin’s nerves without being overwhelmed by the legend he ultimately became. Whether this picture book will actually encourage them to practice their music is another matter, however. Still, it’s a touching farewell to one of America’s greatest composers. A?
Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney Illustrator: Brian Pinkney
This heavy volume offers a comprehensive look at 10 black American heroes, from Benjamin Banneker in the days of slavery to our current president, Barack Obama. At 256 pages, it might a bit dense for the age level (9 and up), but the prose is compulsively readable, and the profiles feel less like history lessons and more like stories. Complete with gorgeous full-color portraits, this book is the perfect way to get kids more interested in the story of America and the black men that helped build her. We can’t wait for its female counterpart. A?
Helen's Big World: The Life of Helen Keller Author: Doreen Rappaport Illustrator: Matt Tavares
One of Helen Keller’s greatest achievements was learning to speak. Rappaport pays tribute to that accomplishment by incorporating Keller’s own words into her prose in the signature style seen in all the author?s children?s biographies, from John Lennon to Martin Luther King, Jr. But the move especially complements this book, where words have such significance. Keller’s story wasn’t just about learning to speak; it was about putting her words to use. There’s no better way to capture that aspiration than seeing the woman herself on the page. A
Who Is Jane Goodall? Author: Roberta Edwards Illustrator: John O'Brien
This short chapter book profiling British anthropologist Jane Goodall is a solid installment in the Who Was… series. Easy, straightforward, and enjoyable, children will appreciate reading a biography that looks at a more contemporary figure, particularly one who works with animals. My only quibble is with the inset pages containing definitions, answering questions, and exploring other famous figures. While these asides are certainly worth reading, they make for unwelcome intrusions in the main thread of the story. Stick to the girl who loved Africa and save the lessons for the end! B+
The Bront¨ Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Annie Author: Catherine Reef
If you’re in search of a readable, yet detailed, biography of the Bront¨ sisters, then look no further than Reef’s account, an ideal supplement to any student’s reading of the Bront¨ classics. While it can be a bit dry at times, Reef more than makes up for it by quoting extensively from the sisters’ own poetry and letters. What’s most rewarding, however, are the tales of their struggles to get published. Nothing makes you appreciate the Bront¨ sisters more than to read about their repeated rejection — and, fortunately, their eventual success. A?
Harlem's Little Blackbird Author: Renée Watson Illustrator: Christian Robinson
Watson’s lyrical prose is the real treat in this stunning children’s biography of Florence Mills. The Harlem Renaissance singer may not be one of the biggest names of the era, but she’s certainly one of the most interesting. Mills’ voice was never recorded; and yet Watson still manages to coax the magic of her song out of the page. Together with Robinson’s beautiful art, Watson paints a picture of a woman who dared to stand up for what she believed in, even when that sometimes meant giving up her own dreams. A
Fifty Cents and a Dream Author: Jabari Asim Illustrator: Bryan Collier
Fifty Cents and a Dream is a straightforward telling of a journey that was anything but straightforward. Booker T. Washington was a part of the last generation of Americans born into slavery. Following the emancipation, young Booker journeyed 500 miles, mainly on foot, to Hampton Institute, where he began his pursuit of a college degree. Though the historical tale is an inspiring one, this picture book feels a little bland. Between the taupe hues of Collier’s illustrations, the unimaginative placement of the text on the page, and the plain prose, the story isn’t quite as gripping as it should be. B