Posts Tagged ‘history’

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano, written by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Fascinating! The evolution of today’s piano from its ancestors the clavichord and harpsichord via the perseverance, ingenuity, and vision of one Italian musician and instrument-maker.

Elizabeth Rusch distills a tremendous amount of information into this wonderfully lively, readable account. It’s packed with period details of 15th and 16th century Florence, woven through with instrument-maker know-how, yet doesn’t bog down at any point. Of course, Marjorie Priceman’s fluid, ravishing illustration work is an equal partner, wowing us on every page.

Especially for kids who study the piano, this is brilliant. Included are a timeline, information about the surviving pianos built by Cristofori, ways to listen to the sound of those old instruments, a comparison between his first pianos and the one in your living room, wonderful listening suggestions for piano music from Beethoven to Lady Gaga, and copious notes explaining how Rusch researched the book, great for inspiring kids crafting their own research papers. Ages 7 to adult.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, written by Michael James Mahin, illustrated by Evan Turk
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Brassy, gritty, coarse-textured illustrations seize us immediately in this sizzling account of bluesman Muddy Waters.

Such a rough and tumble life and formidable obstacles, such tenacity and stubborn determination, are revealed in the “deep-feeling, gutbucket, gut-aching music full of life and love and trouble and pride” that Waters created and muscled onto the scene. The collaboration between text and image in this book are unusually powerful. Even if you don’t know Waters, you’ll be irresistibly drawn to experience his music. An Author’s Note fills in more detail. Great biography for ages 6 and up.

One Proud Penny, written by Randy Siegel, illustrated by Serge Bloch
published in 2017, a Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press

Yeah, there’s an anti-penny movement out there, but you can bet not a single child has signed on! Kids love pennies. Small and bright, glinting oh so tantalizingly under a park bench or at the bottom of the dentist office’s goldfish pool. Just right for a tiny pocket.

This jaunty account of pennies holds all that same magic, which is nearly unbelievable, right? How can the history of pennies in general, and the one 1983 penny who narrates our story, be so enticing? Trust me, though, this talented duo has created a book with gobs of personality, generous splashes of curious info, and oodles of charm. Ages 5 and up. End pages hold A Brief History of U.S. coins that older siblings and parents will most definitely read after this tasty appetizer.

Danza! Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
published in 2017 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

One of the things I love about author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh is his selection of subjects, always intriguing and nearly always quite unfamiliar to me. I love learning from his brilliant picture books!

Here he tells us about an impressive, talented, woman called Ami, whose love for dance and dedication to the traditions of her homeland of Mexico came together with extraordinary, joyous results.

Born in 1917, Ami was entranced by the musicians and dancers she saw as a child performing in open air squares. She went on to study ballet, then began choreographing new ballets incorporating unique elements from regional, folkloric dances found throughout Mexico. Her amazing drive, creativity, and talent can now be seen in the work of the Ballet Folklórico de México, a highly-decorated dance company  which performs and inspires dancers worldwide.

Accompanied by his trademark illustrations, Tonatiuh regales us with Ami’s story and the riches of folkloric dance. Ages 4 and up. An Author’s Note, Glossary of terms, and bibliography including websites for learning more, are included.

Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day, written by Jennifer George, illustrated by Ed Steckley
published in 2017 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Rather than telling us about Rube Goldberg — yada, yada, yada — the creators of this energetic picture book allow us to experience all the fantastical, thingitybobness of Goldberg’s cockamamie inventions.

Little Rube nonchalantly goes through his day by stepping from one convoluted mechanism to another. Witty, comic-style pictures illustrate all fourteen of them, from his solar-power- boxing-glove-choo-choo-train-vacuum-cleaner-water-pitcher alarm clock, straight through to his lights-out, tucking-in machine which requires a jack-in-the-box, padlock, telescope, softball, encyclopedia, bike helmet and several other bits and bobs. A total blast for kids and their grown-ups, ages 4 or 5 and up.

Birthdays Around the World, written by Margriet Ruurs, illustrated by Ashley Barron
published in 2017 by Kids Can Press

Another colorful, intriguing entry from Kids Can Press, this time popping in on seventeen children around the world to find out how they celebrate their birthdays.

Which cultures place particular importance on certain birthdays — the first, the third, the seventh? Where might a child wear a paper crown in school on his birthday? Where does everyone in the whole country turn one year older on the same day? Which child enjoys an all-out celebration on the King’s birthday? Where might the birthday girl be treated to many gifts of flowers, always bunched in odd numbers?

A delightful way to learn about the world, illustrated by Barron’s jolly, cut-paper designs. A treat for ages 2 and up.


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Last year marked the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Those centuries saw London rebuild from tragic destruction…

…to the phenomenal city she is today.

A gorgeous book was published to commemorate the fire. That prompted me to scope out some other great titles available to those of us on this side of the pond, helping us explore the early history of our friends the Brits. The starting point of our journey today will be 1666 and we’ll travel farther back in time from there.

The Great Fire of London, written by Emma Adams, illustrated by James Weston Lewis
published in 2016 by Wayland

The striking illustrations in this book arrest our attention straight from the cover image to the final page. Phenomenal!

Walk through the streets of London during the terrifically hot summer of 1666, and witness the progress of the terrible conflagration that began in a baker’s oven and roared through the city over the next days.

Read excerpts from journals, meet Christopher Wren, discover the changes to firefighting that occurred as a result of the ruination, learn of the reconstruction to famous buildings — all in a concise, riveting narrative. History made eminently fascinating for ages 6 and up.

If this makes you hanker for a longer historical fiction account of the Great Fire, we enjoyed Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. It’s a great read/read-aloud for ages 8 and older. Out of print, but you can find copies in some libraries or buy from third party sellers on Amazon.

The Queen’s Progress: An Elizabethan Alphabet, written by Celeste Davidson Mannis, illustrations by Bagraim Ibatoulline
published in 2003 by Viking

Elizabeth I, Good Queen Bess, reigned from 1558 to 1603, giving her name to a dazzling era of culture and prosperity. This fascinating book about her is structured as an alphabet book, but don’t be fooled! Its rich content suits readers ages 7 through much older.

Every summer Queen Elizabeth took a holiday known as the royal progress. The queen, her courtiers, and hundreds of attendants left London in a caravan that stretched as far as the eye could see.” What made up this spectacular procession? What festivities took place along the way? Where did she stay? How did they feast? Who were her courtiers?

Packed with glittering detail, illustrated by one of the masters who takes us by the hand and plumps us down in the middle of Elizabethan England, this is a gem of a history book.

The Tudors: Kings, Queens, Scribes and Ferrets!, written and illustrated by Marcia Williams
published in 2016 by Candlewick Press

Stepping farther back still…Elizabeth I was the last of the Tudors, a line of royalty whose rule began in 1485 with the crowning of Henry VII.

Marcia Williams’ jolly cartoon style makes the history of those 120 years most-appealing and accessible to young elementary children. Her colorful panels introduce all the Tudors plus a few extras such as Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Running along the bottom of the pages we witness the lives of the commoners. And a snappy little ferret named Smudge gives a running account from his point of view along the margins.

A jumble of fun that delivers a whole lot of information.

For more books specifically about Shakespeare, see my post: hey nonny nonny! ’tis Shakespeare’s birthday

Now let’s take a big leap back in time…

Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold, written and illustrated by James Rumford
published in 2007 by Houghton Mifflin

Around the year 800, an epic poem about a hero named Beowulf was written down in the Anglo-Saxon language. A couple of centuries passed, England was conquered by the folks across the Channel, and the enormous changes to the Saxons’ language meant that soon very few could read that Olde English account.

Thankfully, some scholars delved into those decrepit manuscripts and brought Beowulf back to us in the early 1800s. This excellent retelling by James Rumford pays homage to its language of origin by using only words that can be traced back to ancient Anglo-Saxon. What a fabulous idea!  History and linguistics in one!

Rumford’s vigorous illustrations exude the warring spirit of this tumultuous, hair-raising struggle. A great introduction for brave children ages 7 and up.

The Secrets of Stonehenge, by Mick Manning and Brita Granström
published in 2013 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

With this final book, we carom all the way back to Stone-Age Britain, some 10,000 years in the past, as we trace the mysteries and secrets of Stonehenge.

What was happening on this piece of wild land we now call the Salisbury Plain all those ages ago? What gods and goddesses did those ancient people worship? What is a “henge” anyway? When did people start constructing this one, and why?

How did they transport such mammoth stones? How did they set them in position? What archaeological discoveries at Stonehenge are revealing the secrets to its past?

Brief, clear text,  juicy tidbits of information in side-bars, and breezy, full-page, colorful illustrations will draw children as young as 5 into these questions and curiosities about the past.

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Bonkers, sci-fi read-aloud

cakes in space cover image

Cakes in Space, by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntrye
published in 2014 by Random House

A Poglite named Ploodle and ferocious frosted cupcakes! One slickery Nameless Horror and our champion of bravery, a little girl named Astra.

cakes in space illustration sarah mcintyre

Take a ride on a spaceship headed 199 years out into the universe, that accidentally becomes infested with marauding cakes and overrun with Poglites intent on salvaging spoons, spoons, spoons! Philip Reeve writes smashing, zany sci-fi for kids, some of which I’ve reviewed before (see Larklight’s review here.) This one’s pitched for even younger readers. Its pages explode with energetic comic-style illustrations. A thoroughly engaging read-aloud for ages 6 or 7 and up; sturdy, independent readers ages 8-10.

Summery, ice-cream confection


Ice Cream Summer, written and illustrated by Peter Sís
published in 2015 by Scholastic Press

Just to warn you: prepare to buy your kids ice cream cones after reading this book!

ice cream summer interior peter sis

Every page is saturated with ice cream cone fantasies. Enjoy reading this clever letter to Grandpa, while learning fascinating tidbits of ice cream history. Dripping with deliciousness for ages 4 and up.

A creative wail of jazz

bird & diz cover image

Bird & Diz, by Gary Golio, art by Ed Young
published in 2015 by Candlewick Press

Four artists at work here: Charlie “Bird” Parker on his sax and Dizzy “Diz” Gillespie on his trumpet toss rhythmic notes “back and forth like jugglers.”

bird & diz interior golio and young

Gary Golio paints a picture of their collaboration with zesty words. Ed Young portrays sound through color and line. The whole fantastic story spills onto one, long, accordion-pleated, jazz-saturated page. A burst of creativity for ages 4 and up.

Encouragement for new brothers and sisters

the new small person cover image

The New Small Person, written and illustrated by Lauren Child
published in the UK in 2014; first U.S. edition in 2015 by Candlewick Press

Elmore Green is about to discover the downside of having a new, small, person enter his household. Like, this little person actually licking his jelly-beans, including the orange ones, and not getting in trouble because he is “only small.”

the new small person interior lauren child

Soon enough, though, Elmore finds the flip side of the coin. Turns out, that little person’s pretty great. Lauren Child’s contagious warm humor shines, for ages 3 and up.

Of NYC Subways and the Empire State Building

lost in nyc cover image

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sánchez
published in 2015 by TOON Graphics

Come along on a field-trip to the Empire State Building. The teacher promises we’ll learn about the NYC subway system along the way. Pablo and Alicia learn more than they bargain for when they take the wrong train. Will they ever catch up with their classmates?

lost in nyc spiegelman and sanchez

An intriguing mix of information is presented in this stylish, graphic format. I was blown away with the approach to illustration Sánchez took. Brilliant. Extra pages of information are crammed with info. Ages 8 and up.

Just look into my eyes….

mesmerized cover image

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France, by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
published in 2015 by Candlewick Press

Read this little gem and you will discover the origins of the word “mesmerized.” Fascinating!

mesmerized interior rockliff and bruno

The colorful, charged-up pages will sweep you into this glimpse of 1700s France, Ben Franklin’s scientific world, a tricky fellow named Dr. Mesmer, and a little something we call the placebo effect. The friendliest dose of science you’ll get all summer. Ages 7 and up.

Because what the world needs now is love, sweet love…

one family cover image

One Family, by George Shannon, illustrated by Blanca Gómez
published in 2015 by Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux

Who makes up your family? Ours includes two parents, four children, and an uncle. Some households include grandparents. Some are a mixture of races and ethnicities.

one family illustration george shannon

All the diverse families in this book love one another. That’s the best kind of family. A cheery catalogue of families and a bit of counting to boot flood the pages of this sunny, warmhearted book for ages 2 and up.

Tour a bayou, but prepare for rain…


Over in the Wetlands: A Hurricane-on-the-Bayou Story, by Caroline Starr Rose, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
published in 2015 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Feel the beads of moisture cling to your face. Smell the salty tang of seawater. Watch mossy curtains silently sway in the breeze.

over in the wetlands interior rose and dunlavey

Then hunker down in a gale-force wind. Hear the thunderous surf. Spy egrets sheltering among cattails. This gorgeous, sensory visit to a Louisiana bayou in a hurricane grips us with strange beauty, powerful storms, and fascinating wildlife. Great for ages 3 and up. Appears on shelves July 14th.

History as seen by a tree…

as an oak tree grows cover image

As an Oak Tree Grows, written and illustrated by G. Brian Karas
published in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers

Watch a Native child plant an acorn on a hill overlooking an Atlantic bay. What world surrounds that tiny sprout? How does the world change around it as it grows?

as an oak tree grows illustration g. brian karas

Witness the passing of time, the immense changes in the countryside, and the growth of the mighty oak. What purposes does it fill over the course of its long life? Beautiful, meaningful, intriguing, for ages 4 and up.

What makes someone a true winner?

number one sam cover image

Number One Sam, written and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli
published in 2014 by Disney Hyperion

Sam the dog is number one. He’s a spunky, zippy driver that always comes in first place…until the unthinkable happens: his friend Maggie wins. 

number one sam interior greg pizzoli

Sam is determined to beat Maggie in the next race, but something momentous happens, forcing Sam to choose between being one sort of winner, and another. Greg Pizzoli’s bold, winning illustrations rocket this simple story to a truly winning spot! Ages 2 and up. 

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a fine dessert emily jenkins and sophie blackall cover imageA Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, written by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
published in 2015 by schwartz&wade books

Imagine the velvety smoothness of fresh whipped cream, swirled with a tangy purple streak of blackberry swizzle.

blackberry fool

Mmmmmmm! Delicious!

This story about that fine dessert — blackberry fool — is in every possible way, delicious.

Of course, its subject matter is delectable.

Equally so are its lovely language, historical perceptiveness, captivating artwork, creamy pages, fascinating notes by author and illustrator, and even the surprising endpapers.

It’s simply the crème de la crème. Nonfiction perfection.

a fine dessert back cover image by sophie blackall

The story stops in on four families, each separated by one hundred years in time, as they prepare and enjoy a scrumptious bowlful of blackberry fool. A wealthy English household in 1710, an 1810 plantation, a New England family in 1910, and a southern California father and son in 2010 — four very different eras, one old recipe relished by all.

Because of the immense thought Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall put into this account, we get to feast on a banquet of history and ideas here. As time passes, architecture changes, as do fashions, furnishings, hairstyles, kitchen equipment, menus. Society changes dramatically as well. I love the final picture of a diverse community eating together. If you pay attention, you’ll pick up on many, masterful details which I’ll leave for you to discover.

a fine dessert interior emily jenkins and sophie blackall

Despite the tide of change that sweeps us along, some sweet constants also show up, including the satisfaction of cooking for people we love, the joy of gathering around the table together, the way generations of children take up the family recipes from their elders, and the lip-smacking delight of licking the spoon! These and a fine dessert interior emily jenkins and sophie blackallother warm currents undergird the story and keep it from being a sort of detached history. 

Jenkins’ vivid language, flavored with both continuity and progress, and Blackall’s always-gorgeous, delicate, ink and watercolor illustrations, make this a story to linger over; to page back and check on a detail here to compare with an aspect there. And don’t skip the Author and Illustrator Notes! You will learn some amazing things about the process of creating story and artwork which will help you appreciate not only this book, but every excellent piece of children’s literature. Plus find out how blackberry juice seeped its way into this book!

a fine dessert emily jenkins sophie blackall interior2I hope I have gushed sufficiently to persuade you to check this book out. If I haven’t done quite enough, might I add that there’s a recipe for blackberry fool so you can try this fine dessert for yourselves?

One of those best-ever nonfiction titles, new this year, which will suit ages 4 and older.

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I’m getting a jump on Thanksgiving this year in hopes of giving you time to track down these lovely titles before the holiday (with apologies to my Canadian friends!)

thanks a million cover imageThanks a Million, poems by Nikki Grimes, illustrations by Cozbi A. Cabrera
published in 2006 by Greenwillow Books

For Nikki Grimes, the words, “thank you” are powerful. They not only bless the ones we thank, but they arise from deep places inside us as we recognize gifts we’ve been given.

We can be thankful for new friends who make us feel less like lonely strangers, for an author whose story comforts our thanks a million illustration cozbi a. cabrera 001unspoken wounds, for kind neighbors, for shelter even when that shelter is bleak. We can thank people who seem to shrug off our thanks, or our dad whose gesture of love we took for granted. Praise comes from the very trees, from those who cannot speak, and from all of us around the Thanksgiving table.

Grimes’ poems are brief, widely varied in structure,  accessible to children ages 4 or 5 and up, yet richly human and authentic.  They are written in the voices of children, but these children are thoughtful, perceptive, acknowledging the realities of a broken world that is still good, recognizing the wealth of love and friendship.

Cozbi Cabrera’s acrylic paintings are strong, vibrant, anchored in the real world, augmenting the thrumming pulse of life that runs through this book, thoroughly multi-cultural. Beautiful. No puny, saccherine thanks here. Highly recommended.

nickommoh cover imageNickommoh! A Thanksgiving Celebration, by Jackie French Koller, illustrated by Marcia Sewall
published in 1999 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

As you perhaps know, the Narragansett people were one of the tribes of Native Americans who for long years lived in the area we now call New England, and who welcomed the Pilgrims, helping them survive their crash course in North American living when they arrived in 1620.

What most of us have remained ignorant of is the rich culture of this people and the thanksgiving celebrations which were woven into their society. Jackie French Koller has worked with Dr. Ella Sekatau, Tribal Ethnohistorian of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, to bring us nickommoh by jackie french koller and marcia sewallthis fascinating, gorgeous account of a typical thanksgiving feast in the Narragansett tradition. Nickommoh is a word meaning “give away” or “exchange” and was used for these gatherings due to the custom of giving away excess food, furs, and clothing to those in need during these harvest celebrations.

The frost coats the fields, the people in their mocussinass come from far and near, lodges are built, games are played, venison and clams and berry cakes are cooked. Old and young prepare for the great dance. The Creator and Life-giver is praised. In poetic, graceful prose, stuffed with interesting detail and sprinkled with Narragansett words, Koller draws us into their lively, creative, gladsome festival which likely was an influence in the original Pilgrim thanksgiving celebration.

Marcia Sewall’s striking illustations are rendered in scratchboard and gouache. Bold, handsome black outlining and an earthy palette of bark browns, golden maize, splashes of clay-reds, plus the brilliant blue  ocean and star-studded night skies make incredibly handsome images. They generate a rich sense of community and happiness and connection with the land. Such beautiful work!

An Author’s Note and glossary of Narragansett words complete this excellent addition to your Thanksgiving reading list. Ages 4 and up.

sarah gives thanks cover imageSarah Gives Thanks, by Mike Allegra, illustrated by David Gardner
published in 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company

Sarah Josepha Hale is largely responsible for you having an official Thanksgiving Day holiday. She’s also responsible for turning Mount Vernon into a National Historic Landmark, fighting against slavery, and writing a poem I bet every one of you knows by heart. If you haven’t met her yet, it’s high time you do!

In 1822, Sarah was a young widow and mother of five living in New Hampshire. She had hankered for education since she was a child, and not being allowed to attend college (why would women want to sarah gives thanks illustration david gardnerdo such a thing?!) she educated herself by reading and reading and reading some more. She was a published writer early in her married life and went on to become editor of the most widely read magazine in the country where she promoted her wonderfully feminist views. If you were around in the mid-1800s, you probably knew of Sarah.

So, when this ball-of-fire determined we should have a national holiday devoted to appreciating what we have and giving thanks for it, you just know she’s not going to quit until it’s in place. It took her thirty-six years to get that final signature from President Lincoln himself, but Sarah did it. She was thankful, and so am I!

I believe it was last year I reviewed another title about Sarah Hale which you can read here. Both of these are outstanding accounts of her life. This one is beautifully illustrated in rich watercolors with paper texture showing through. The compositions are engaging and lively, with a bit of humor, lovely period detail, and a gently aging Sarah. It’s a splendid book for ages 4 and up. 

thanksgiving at our house cover image2 001Thanksgiving At Our House, written and illustrated by Wendy Watson
published in 1991 by Clarion Books

This jolly family is about to celebrate Thanksgiving. The relatives are coming, so they’re busy scouring the house, ironing party clothes, making place cards, and roasting a huge turkey.thanksgiving at our house illustration wendy watson 001

As batches of visitors arrive, the day fills up with cousins everywhere,  pies and pies, singing grace, taking naps, and playing outdoors in the first snowflakes of the season.

Wendy Watson brings us a lighthearted, tradition-filled, large family holiday in this little charmer. Bits of story are interspersed with snippets of nursery rhyme and poems that twinkle-toe along as sweet and delicious as whipped cream on warm apple pie. Darling, warmhearted pictures with oodles to look at will put a smile on the face of young listeners, ages 3 and up.

hardscrabble harvest cover imageHard Scrabble Harvest, written and illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar
published in 1976 by Doubleday & Company

Awhile back I wrote a blog post about Dahlov Ipcar and her imaginative, colorful artwork and children’s books, such rich gifts to us arising from her creativity,  long life of connection with the land, and broad experimentation with line and color and artforms.

Here’s one more of her titles that’s perfect for sharing at Thanksgiving. Dahlov knew full well the hardscrabble work of farm life, yet she loved it just the same. Stemming from her hardscrabble harvest illustration dahlov ipcarexperiences working the Maine farmstead with her husband and sons, this joyful book begins with the long odds of the farmer, planting his garden, then desperately trying to protect his growing vegetables from all the critters licking their lips in anticipation! From crows to raccoons to rabbits, nibbling here, thieving there, it’s an uphill battle!

Still, as harvest-time comes, there are bushels of apples and tomatoes to haul in, wagonloads of pumpkins and squashes to store, jellies to put up, turkeys to fatten, and a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner to share with the relatives. 

Ipcar’s masterful compositions and patterning are compelling, energetic, full of life and joy and the richness of the earth. With brief, rhyming text and bold illustrations, it’s a timeless book for sharing with small persons ages 2 and older.




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Happy President’s Day!

In past years I’ve written several presidential lists-of-five with Washington and Lincoln titles. You can find them in the Subject Index under President’s Day.

This year I’m straying from the two birthday boys, and looking at four other presidents in these five, truly outstanding books. 

No but wait!  I just got my hands on Maira Kalman’s new Thomas Jefferson title. So, I’m adding that gem as well! It’s a list of SIX today.

the revolutionary john adams cover imageThe Revolutionary John Adams, written and illustrated by Cheryl Harness
published in 2003 by National Geographic

As Cheryl Harness says in her introductory note, John Adams has been “eternally bookended and overshadowed” by the fellows that came before and after him in the White House — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Yet Adams was an indispensable player in the founding of our country, the designing of our governing systems, and the establishment of the the revolutionary john adams illustration harness 001navy. He was a hard-working, brave, passionate man, whose sweet friendship with his wife Abigail we also admire.

As always, Cheryl Harness has written an engaging, insightful, rich biography, full of the kinds of details that make history come alive. Beginning with John’s birth in 1735 to a shoemaker and his wife, and ending with his death on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — what an amazing slice of history to be alive in and so essentially a part of. Harness spotlights Adams, yet includes a great deal of the historical setting and events of the American Revolution.

True to form, Harness’ detailed paintings present a wagonload more information, so look carefully and take your time working through her beautiful, historically-accurate pictures, maps, timeline, and all the intriguing Adams’ quotes. Excellent biography for ages 9 or 10 and up.

thomas jefferson builds a library cover imageThomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by John O’Brien
published in 2013 by Calkins Creek

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. That makes him a kindred spirit for many of us, doesn’t it?

Jefferson truly did seem to live on books from the time he was a little boy. He read and studied just about constantly. But that’s not all. Jefferson also collected books. At the time, this was an exceptionally expensive little hobby, and by Jefferson’s calculations, he spent a small fortune over the course of his life on his precious books.

It’s what he did with his vast collection that’s the really amazing part. His book-obsession benefits us today. Do you know how?

thomas jefferson builds a library barb rosenstock and john o'brien

This is a fascinating account, brilliantly told, which folks ages 6 through adult will very much enjoy. John O’Brien’s pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are eye-catching, clever, engaging, and add a dash of fun. I really love his use of line and his colonial color palette.  Highly recommended! It just received a well-deserved recommendation in the 2014 Orbus Pictus nonfiction awards.

worst of friends cover imageWorst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud, by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain, illustrations by Larry Day
published in 2011 by Dutton Children’s Books

Now that we’ve met these two, it’s time to read an unusual account of their friendship, interrupted by bitterness, and their eventual deep reconciliation. I have to say that I read this book to my husband to while away the hours of a road trip recently, and…it made him get a bit misty-eyed. He was deeply touched by the restoration these men achieved after so much acrid disagreement. That just tells you a worst of friends suzanne tripp and  larry daylittle bit about my husband; he values reconciliation tremendously.


the jacket flap calls it a “humorous” story and it’s true that Jurmain and Day strike a light tone. That’s good, because a book that gloomed and grumped along would be too heavy for young readers and cast too great a shadow on these decent fellows. Jurmain uses a breezy tone to bring us from their best-of-friends stage, through the Revolution, until unfortunately at the time Jefferson took the oath of office,  they were not on speaking terms. 12 years went by until they softened their hearts and enjoyed a sunny friendship once again.

It’s a great story on many levels, and a really excellent choice for ages 7 or 8 and up.

thomas jefferson life liberty and the pursuit of everything cover imageThomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books

Oh, I could devote a whole post to this, but I’ll restrain myself!

Here is Jefferson as only Maira can portray him. A red-head with about 20 freckles, with a specially-designed bed so he could be up and at ’em at the crack of dawn, who loved growing vegetables, and ate “so many kinds of pudding” and strolled through his gardens with the Marquis de Lafayette plucking figs. Maira has a knack of dishing up the quirky, human side in her biographies.thomas jefferson life liberty and the pursuit of everything illustration maira kalman

She’s also eloquent on Jefferson’s passion to know about…everything! and his noble contributions to our nation. And, she matter-of-factly addresses the slavery issue as though she is holding our faces between her hands, gazing steadily into our eyes, and quietly delivering some painful news. Without killing the whole man. 

All this, and page after page of her brilliant artwork. Many try to mimic, but no one does Maira like Maira. The whole book bursts with color and life. Especially that exorbitant spring green that carpets the hillsides of Monticello. Brand new in 2014 and just so juicy and good!

to dare mighty things cover imageTo Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by C.F. Payne
published in 2013 by Disney Hyperion Books

Moving rapidly along, we come to that giant among men, the boisterous, the energetic,  the one and only, Teddy!

And would you look at that book cover! That really says it all! Not even a title on it to detract from the out-sized portrait of this enthusiastic, charge-ever-onward, bully-for-you, guy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. Rappaport has done a phenomenal job of taking us through TR’s life from his puny, asthmatic childhood and insatiable curiosity, through his rise to influence, his gusto and fearlessness, his deep sorrows, his passion for conservation, his lively presidential family — with a light hand. So much personality and outlook and information is packed into lines that are effortless to read. 

Payne’s artwork fills up to dare might things illus 2 doreen rappaport and c f paynethe large, square pages of this book with dramatic flair. There is nothing small or refined here. Each magnificent scene feels expansive and bursting with life, pulling us up close to this incredible persona.

A timeline and a great list of resources to learn more are included, as are many choice quotes. This is another very highly recommended biography for elementary-age and up, and where was this when the awards were handed out?! 

make your mark franklin roosevelt cover imageMake Your Mark, Franklin Roosevelt, by Judith St. George, illustrated by Britt Spencer
published in 2007 by Philomel Books

This breezy biography of FDR is plum full of stories that paint a picture of his life from birth to age 18. The book ends with just one, looking-ahead sentence about FDR’s eventual job as president. A few details of his presidential achievements are given in a short afterword.

So, it’s a very accessible biography, much more personal and less historically-focused than the others today. 

Roosevelt, of course, was born into a very wealthy, privileged family. His mother cossetted and pampered him in a rather terrifying manner, andmake your mark franklin roosevelt illustration britt spencer 001 was appalled at the notion that he would enter the embarrassing, low life of politics!

His father, Popsy, led FDR in recreational pursuits to make any child drool, and governesses attempted to teach the fairly-imperious boy his lessons. Life at Groton boarding school, and his fifth cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, were part of what awakened him to a bigger world view.

Judith St. George knows how to spin a story, and these are all engaging anecdotes. Kids won’t learn much about FDR’s important role as president, but will be intrigued by the backstory to our longest-serving, WWII leader. Britt Spencer’s mixed media illustrations are bright, vivid, playful, with a touch of David Small about them, easily drawing  listeners in to this text — a little lengthier than some and divided into six very-short chapters. Ages 7 and up.

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The Good Fight: How World War II Was Won, by Stephen E. Ambrose

As a child, World War II seemed somehow like far-off history to  me.  In fact, I was born only 16 short years after it ended.  Sixteen years to a 16-year-old is a lifetime.  To my father, who fought in the war, it was the blink of an eye.  I always loved hearing his stories of his time in the Army Air Force, as it was called then.  Flying gliders into Normandy.  Dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines. 

My Dad, 1945

Eating sweet oranges in Morocco.  Basking in the tumultuous exuberance of a free Holland and Paris.  It is a privilege to honor him today, along with other veterans with their many, varied stories and lives.

Stephen Ambrose’s book The Good Fight  is a fantastic look at World War II suitable for upper-elementary kids through adults.  Ambrose has chosen to highlight many facets of the war, some of which are rarely covered.  Each topic gets one page of narrative, alongside a  magnificent full-page photograph.  These photos are fabulous!  Each two-page spread also includes other, smaller photos and a Quick Facts box highlighting diverse facts and statistics related to the topic.

Here you can read about some of the most famous aspects of WWII, such as D-Day, the Holocaust, Guadalcanal, and the atomic bomb.  You’ll also learn about other fascinating, lesser-known undertakings such as the Aleutian Campaign in Alaska, where ground crews had to chase bears off the runways, the Doolittle raid, when intrepid pilots accomplished what many thought impossible, and the gleeful meeting of the American and Soviet armies at Torgau, Germany, just a few weeks before the German surrender.  The sad story of Japanese internment camps, and the jubilant liberation of Paris; the horrors of casualties and prisoners, and the heroism of soldiers and civilians; numerous, well-drawn maps which help place various campaigns and theaters — so  much is packed into this absorbing 90-page book.

Ambrose does not talk down to his audience, yet he clearly presents a vast amount of information as well as communicating a tone of deep appreciation for those who fought in this incredible world-wide war.  I don’t know of a better kids book on World War II.  Highly recommended.

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