Today marks the fourth week of my biography focus
and these heroic personalities were an absolute delight for me to discover.
You can backtrack and meet the folks introduced earlier via the posts here, here, and here.
Perkin’s Perfect Purple: How a Boy Created Color with Chemistry
written by Tami Lewis Brown and Debbie Loren Dunn, illustrated by Francesca Sanna
published in 2020 by Disney Hyperion
The color purple was long associated with royalty because obtaining purple dye was historically an immensely difficult and expensive process. Only the royals could afford it. Ancient Phoenicians created it through an arduous, smelly process involving one particular marine mollusk. Dyers in Queen Victoria’s time attempted to produce it with everything from lichens to bugs. The key ingredient in a lasting purple dye was…a little gross!
At long last a chemist named William Henry Perkin came along. William was working on developing a synthetic source for an anti-malarial drug. Mix, mix, mix. Bubble, pour, wait. Filter, wash, dry. William was getting no where. But what was this?! The sludge at the bottom of the beaker was a lovely purple! A purple he could replicate. A purple that lasted. A purple that could become a popular, fashionable color for all of us, royal or not.
What a surprising, interesting, bubbly story of an accidental victory. Told with aplomb on pages designed and illustrated with copious interest and verve. And lots of purple! A lengthy Author’s Note tells more about William, color, and the unexpectedly large role William’s discovery would make in on-going scientific research. It’s a fabulous piece of nonfiction that will wow kids ages 5 and up, up, up!
111 Trees: How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl
written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Marianne Ferrer
published in 2020 by Kids Can Press
This book could easily find its way into a celebration of trees and reforestation but it’s also a great story about one man who chose to turn his sorrow into a stream of love enabling others to flourish.
Shyam Sundar Paliwal had experienced multiple griefs including the sudden loss of his mother, his daughter’s death due to dehydration, and the devastation of the land due to careless practices at the local marble factory. With his deeply-held belief in the sacredness of the land, his counter-cultural belief in the equal goodness of girls rather than a marked preference for boys, and his insight into the ways women’s lives are uniquely impacted by poverty and ecological collapse, Sundar seized upon an idea that would benefit everyone in his village.
Find out how his campaign to plant 111 trees in celebration of the birth of every village girl and to obtain pledges to allow these girls to stay in school, ended up restoring the land, sprouting a forest, providing better access to water, increasing the number of girls receiving full educations, and in general prospering the townspeople. A book brimming with hope for ages 7 and up.
Headstrong Hallie!: The Story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the First Female “Fire Guard”
written by Aimée M. Bissonette, illustrated by David Hohn
published in 2021 by Sleeping Bear Press
The horrific forest fires burning in the western U.S. and Canada this past summer, wafting their hazy smoke across the entire country, mean this book will connect with young readers more than ever. It’s the story of a woman named Hallie whose motivation to help manage forest fires arose from her experiences as a child. Raised in the Siskiyou Mountains of California in the late 1800s, Hallie was profoundly at home in the wilderness, and simultaneously potently aware of the dangers of summer wildfires.
At that time, however, women weren’t welcome as employees of the US Forest Service. Did this stop headstrong Hallie? Of course not.
This tremendously engaging account introduces us to a grand woman plum full of pluck, perseverance, and steadfast dedication. Eventually taken on by the Forest Service, she faithfully monitored her corner of the wilderness from a home base in a tiny, isolated cabin. A story that’ll give your kids a new hero — ages 4 and up.
Through the Wardrobe: How C.S. Lewis Created Narnia, written and illustrated by Lina Maslo
published in 2020 by Balzer + Bray
Many of you and your households are fans of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and therefore will enjoy this gentle, affectionate introduction to both Lewis and his books.
This account traces Lewis’ life from his childhood in Northern Ireland through his marriage to Joy Gresham and the publication of all seven Narnia books. It peaceably ambles among both idyllic moments and painful circumstances. Along the way we notice many bits and pieces that eventually make their way into the Narnia stories. Maslo includes elements such as the death of young Jack’s mother, the bullying he experienced at boarding school, his time as a WWI soldier, and his struggles with religious faith, yet always frames them in language and tone that make the book completely accessible to young children. Her color-saturated artwork brings a note of joy throughout.
End notes include more extensive information about Lewis and many interesting tidbits to intrigue older children. Ages 4 and up.
The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine
written by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Lisa Anchin
published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf
If there ever was a time when children would comprehend the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jonas Salk — this is it! Around the world, we have been speaking the language of vaccination for the last 18 months, and Salk’s pioneering work has been part of what has led us to this place.
The son of Russian-Jewish refugees, Jonas was a studious, kind, fair-minded person as a child. He chose to go to medical school out of a heart longing to help others. Later, he and his lab partner, Dr. Thomas Francis, invented a highly effective type of flu vaccine.
But it is his research and ultimate success in developing a polio vaccine that makes Salk’s name so beloved today. At a time when the polio virus was killing and crippling people by the tens of thousands each year, Salk’s vaccine brought life and hope to the world. Just like those who have worked night and day to develop the vaccines for the COVID-19 virus, Salk and his fellow scientists are true heroes. This straightforward, plainspoken story is accessible to children ages 4 and up. An Author’s Note tells about her experience growing up in the 1950s and the advent of the polio vaccine.
Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
written and illustrated by Peter Sís
published in 2021 by Norton Young Readers
Nicholas Winton wasn’t exactly an ordinary bloke. Born in London to German-Jewish parents who converted to Christianity; a fencer who was capable enough to make the British Olympic team; this guy was not just your run-of-the-mill type. Yet he was just a straight-laced stockbroker when a casual trip to visit a friend turned his world upside down.
It was 1938; Prague was bursting with refugees facing the utmost of grim situations. Britain would accept refugees under the age of 17 but there was a rat’s nest of red tape to get through for each one and not nearly enough time to navigate it all. So Nicholas …improvised.
This stunning book shares the simultaneous accounts of Winton — who would manage to rescue hundreds and hundreds of children — and one child whose life was saved — a girl named Vera. Sís’s steady, unadorned text and extraordinary art work together to tell a powerful and poignant story. I was deeply moved by this book. Share it with ages 6 or 7 and up, and savor the images slowly.
Bartali’s Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy’s Secret Hero
written by Megan Hoyt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
published in 2021 by Quill Tree Books
Finally, another hero nearly relegated to obscurity, this time a hero on a bike. In Italy. Who was also moved to help suffering Jewish refugees during WWII.
Gino Bartali was a star cyclist, winning the Tour de France in 1938. But when he began witnessing the oppression of Jewish families in his native Florence, he knew he needed to do something to help them. It turns out that an underground network was already at work smuggling these folks across the mountains to Switzerland or onto boats heading to the Americas. What they needed was a communications link, and a fellow on a bicycle proved to be just the ticket.
Bartali made countless runs as a secret courier, stowing documents inside his bike, pedaling hither and yon across the country, at times 250 miles in a day. He also made use of his athletic fame in other incredibly clever, dangerous, intrepid moves, saving at least 800 Jewish people over the course of the war. Yet almost no one knew of his efforts until a secret stash of diaries revealed the truth many years later.
This is a fabulous story of true heroism. The dynamic, bold illustrations pulse with vigor and suspense, and glow with a ’40s vintage vibe. Excellent choice for ages 5 and up.
Next week I’ll have the last group of biographies for this little blitz.
Don’t want to miss a post? Subscribe to my blog — it’s free! — by clicking on the three little lines at the top left of the page.