Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars
written by Gary Golio, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
published in 2020 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Born in 1897, musically inclined from his very youngest days, Willie Johnson lost both his mother and his sight by age 8. He was not stopped in his tracks by these sorrows, yet surely the scratchy sounds he produced on his guitar, the sighing quality of his voice, and the way his music speaks to the mixture of loneliness and beauty that characterizes our lives — surely these poignant elements of his music are the fruit of the darkness in his life.
Johnson’s song, Dark Was the Night, was included on the golden disc of human sounds recorded and sent along on the Voyager I spacecraft back in 1977. Thus Johnson’s artistry and humanity are traveling among the stars at present, some 14 billion miles from earth.
This profoundly touching story, gorgeously illustrated with sun-soaked artwork reflecting the light within Willie Johnson, is a gem to share with ages 5 and up. Additional notes tell more about Johnson’s life and the Voyager 1 Golden Disc.
World of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
published in 2020 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Some of us are lucky enough to live in a city where a piece by glassblower Dale Chihuly is installed. Here in Minneapolis, the grand foyer of our Institute of Art dazzles with his massive Sunburst. It’s such a vibrant, jubilant piece:
So I was happy to find this biography by an award-winning team, walking us through Dale’s life, one strewn with color from his earliest days, yet also deeply grooved with sorrows. His pathway to glassblowing stardom was quite a meandering one, with dead ends and surprising moments that inspired and prodded him along.
The whole book is crammed with photographs of his stunning, eye-popping sculptures and installations, and although it’s on the longer side, it could easily be shared bit by bit with children ages about 9 and up. Especially for those who have seen his art in person, or for those looking for an unconventional artist to brighten your day, check out this selection, written by an absolutely top-notch team of biographers.
Hans Christian Andersen: The Journey of His Life
written by Heinz Janisch, illustrated by Maja Kastelic, translated by David Henry Wilson
published in 2020 by NorthSouth Books
This gorgeous account of Hans Christian Andersen’s life is cleverly framed as the storyteller telling his own story. Elsa is a little girl traveling with her mother by coach. An older gentleman — Hans — is traveling as well and when Elsa introduces herself to him, the two of them strike up a friendly conversation.
Along the way Hans tells Elsa a story, as requested. It’s the story of his life growing up in poverty, then making his way into literary fame through the fantastical stories he writes. His life begins with a great deal of sorrow but morphs into a much happier existence. Hans tells Elsa which of his famous fairy tales include a fragment of his own self, like The Ugly Duckling, and which show a bit of the ways of the world, like The Emperor’s New Clothes. Captivating and conversational, the text conveys a great deal of information with ease and sparkle.
Meanwhile the brilliant, delicate illustration work carries us right into these other worlds using sepia tones for the biographical pages, rich, jewel-like colors for sections relating the fairy tales themselves, and a sort of prairie-gold, nostalgic palette for the scenes of the carriage ride. Additionally, Kastelic has tucked in a number of fairy tale characters and other storybook characters that are great fun to spy. She’s also painted in some famous children’s authors in one scene, some of whom I’m unable to recognize. Maybe you’ll know them all. All told, it’s a splendid, beautiful book to share with ages 5 and up.
The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest
written by Heather Lang, illustrated by Jana Christy
published in 2021 by Calkins Creek
If your kids think that shimmying up to the tippy-top of some extremely tall trees,
hanging out in the jungle canopy with parrots and koalas and…pythons,
traipsing about a rainforest on hanging walkways,
or bivouacking on lightweight rafts floating at the top of the forested world sounds epic —
— you definitely want to check out this account of rainforest scientist and innovator Margaret Lowman.
Lowman was just 25 years old back in the late ’70s when she realized that a whole new approach was essential to truly study the rainforest. She doggedly worked at rigging up a harness in which she could climb up to unexplored heights, then made amazing discoveries about life in this fascinating biome.
Lowman engineered other ways to explore forests elsewhere around the world including helping invent the world’s first canopy walkway. My daughter and I went on a canopy tour in British Columbia some years ago and it is such an awesome way to learn about a forest. Meet an extraordinary person, and a groundbreaking scientist, in this lively, fascinating biography for ages 5 or 6 and up!
The Water Lady: How Darlene Arviso Helps a Thirsty Navajo Nation
written by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Shonto Begay
published in 2021 by Schwartz & Wade
In the sunbaked homeland of the Navajo nation, Darlene Arviso grew up at a time when water still filled the reservoirs, when rains made their appearance regularly enough in the high desert to satisfy the people and animals who lived there. Now however, climate change has dried up the reservoir and the rains, and the water has been polluted by nearby mining. It is a challenge for the Navajo people to access sufficient clean water.
Darlene is one of the people working to meet that need. Ride along on Darlene’s daily journey, filling up her tanker at a water tower, then driving to ten different homes, delivering thousands of gallons of clean water to families who depend on her faithful service. Learn, too, how the Navajo people ration their water to make their supply last far longer than the average American household.
Although the current conditions of the great Navajo nation and the climate threats they face sadden me, I love this story of community, resilience, strength, and love. You’ll learn something important about our fellow Americans when you share it with ages 4 and up.
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver
Written by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison
published in 2020 by Katherine Tegen Books
For some reason, George Washington Carver has been a hero of mine since I was a child. So I was happy to see this new, fascinating, gorgeous biography of him, illustrated by one of the best in the business.
Barretta opens his account with the white-haired, distinguished Carver addressing Congress in 1921, explaining the manifold benefits of the lowly peanut. Initially met with derision, his brilliant and innovative ideas quickly won this body of white men over. How did Carver arrive at this moment?
It all started when he was just a little boy on a farm in Missouri, carefully, secretly, stubbornly cultivating his own wildflower garden, studying the plants surrounding him, learning creativity as a means of economy, and making helpful discoveries about the benefits of these supposedly frivolous growing things.
From there it was a matter of copious study, seeking out ways to learn at a time when Black Americans were barred from many schools and universities, and finally being hired at the Tuskegee Institute where he was able to pursue the experimentation that helped revolutionize agriculture.
Stunning illustrations by Morrison draw us into George’s world, entrance us with the very plants that captivated him, and convey the dignity and kindness that characterized this gentle giant. A gem for ages 5 and up.
Next week I’ll have the fourth installment of these brilliant biographies.
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