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Learning About People and Their Dreams

By Sandip Wilson and Carolyn Angus
 | Mar 14, 2016

At any given time in history there are thousands, maybe millions of ordinary people living extraordinary lives. Books about those people in depth can inspire and inform readers with historical context and how it is possible to overcome barriers and still achieve a dream, even if it must be altered in the process. As we enjoy reading the life stories of people, we also learn how individuals shaped and were shaped by their times.

Ages 4–8

Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler (Step Into Reading). Kate Klimo. Ill. Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher. 2016. Random House.

drseussYoung children who listen to adults read Dr. Seuss’s many picture books such as Horton Hears a Who! and If I Ran the Circus and are beginning to learn to read books such as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat now have a biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904­–1991) that they can read on their own. The book shows how Geisel, a lifelong doodler, went from making imaginative drawings of animals in a zoo near his childhood home in Springfield, MA, to being the author–illustrator of more than 40 books that continue to be loved by children today. The incorporation of drawings by Geisel in Johnson and Fancher’s paintings add interest. Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler will also be a good addition to read-aloud sessions when sharing one or more of the books mentioned in the biography.


The Kid From Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton. Audrey Vernick. Ill. Steven Salerno. 2016. Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

diamond_streetEdith Houghton (1912–2013), the youngest of 10 children, grew up playing baseball with her brothers and neighbors on Diamond Street in Philadelphia.  When she was not playing, she was watching games being played on a baseball field across the street at night from her parents’ bedroom window.  When she was 10 years old, Edith heard that an all-female baseball team, the Philadelphia Bobbies, was looking for players.  She auditioned and became the youngest member of the team, a team that won against all-male teams and built such popularity that the team was invited to play in Japan in 1925.  Rendered in charcoal, ink, and gouache with additional color added digitally, the double-page illustrations show the thrill of the games and events of the team’s travels.  An author’s note includes archival photographs and additional details on Edith’s life such as her serving as a WAVE during World War II and being hired as a major league scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. In The Kid from Diamond Street,young readers exploring the world of biography have a book that combines sports history and the lives of girls who follow their dreams. 


You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! Jonah Winter. Ill. Barry Blitt. Schwartz & Wade/Random House.

casey_stengelFollowing the format of his earlier You Never Heard Of picture book biographies of Sandy Koufax and Willy Mays, Jonah Winter pays tribute to Casey Stengel (Charles Dillon Stengel [1890–1975]). The witty, conversational narration introduces young readers to this sports hero, focusing on Stengel’s 12 years as manager of the New York Yankees 1949–1960, during which the Yankees won 10 American League pennants and seven World Series. Britt’s pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, featuring caricatures of Casey, and the inclusion of Stengelese quips such as “The teams has come along slow but fast” and insets of stats and trivia make this an engaging addition to books for young people about baseball history. Back matter includes a glossary of baseball terms, a note on sources of the statistics used in the book, and an author’s note.


Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Dean Robbins. Ill. Sean Qualls & Selina Alko. 2016. Orchard/Scholastic.

two_friendsQualls and Alko’s beautifully-composed mixed media illustrations and Robbins’ lyrical text tell the story of the friendship of two famous American civil rights activists, Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), who came together to share cups of tea and ideas in Rochester, New York, in the mid-1800s. Robbins uses parallel phrasing to express how both individuals recognized that some people had rights that others did not have. Anthony wanted rights for women. “The right to live free. The right to vote.”Douglass wanted rights for African Americans. “The right to live free. The right to vote.” Cutout collage waves of handwritten words that move across some of the double spreads emphasize Anthony’s and Douglass’s tireless efforts in speaking out for a shared goal, that one day all people would have the same rights.  The book ends with an author’s note, bibliography, and portraits of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.


Ages 9–11

Mercy: The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA and Friend to Animals. Nancy Furstinger. Ill. Vincent Desjardins. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

mercyHenry Bergh was born into privilege and wealth as one of three children of a ship builder in New York City in 1813.  Uninterested in going into the family business, Bergh displayed similar disinterest as a law student at Columbia College. His growing passion against cruelty to animals emerged in a trip to Europe and later as an emissary to the Russian Court.  Bergh was aware of the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the 1830s in England. Appalled at the treatment of horses and the cruelty of cock and dog fights in New York City, Bergh lobbied for the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. As its president, he worked to protect animals such as working dogs, dairy cows, and draft horses for the rest of his life, often facing the ridicule of adversaries and the press. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Furstinger’s use of primary sources provides Bergh’s perspective as he exposed cruelty in sports hunting and horrific treatment of animals in slaughter houses. The digitally-created illustrations and archival photographs complement the text. Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, quote sources, a bibliography, and an index.


Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor. Robert Burleigh. Ill. Raúl Colón. 2016. Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster.

solving_the_puzzleBurleigh has Mary Tharp (1920–2006) tell her own life story of an early love of maps nurtured by traveling around the U.S. with her father, a surveyor and mapmaker, and her determination to overcome the barriers to working in a field of science not accepting of women in the 1940s. As an assistant in the ocean-studies lab at Columbia University, Mary, who could not go out on the research ships (having a woman on board was considered bad luck), took the data of soundings made at sea and began the important project of mapping the Atlantic seafloor. Her meticulous cartography revealed the deep mid-Atlantic rift that confirmed the theory of continental drift. Colón’s stunning pencil and watercolor illustrations for this picture book biography include some dramatic ocean scenes. Back matter includes additional information on Mary Tharp and her scientific contributions, a glossary of terms, a bibliography, Internet resources, and a “Things to Wonder About and Do” section. 


Ages 12–14

Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World. Winifred Conkling. 2016. Algonquin.

radioactiveIrène Curie and Lise Meitner lived different lives although their work in physics and chemistry intersected.  Irène, the first-born child of two Nobel Prize-winning physicists, earned her doctorate at the Sorbonne and became a collaborator with her mother, Marie Curie. Lise was the third of eight children, struggled to earn admission to university, and then applied to work in Max Planck’s laboratory in Berlin, the center of science at the time.  Irène married Frédéric Joliot, and the Joliot-Curies won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Never married, Lise worked with Otto Hahn for more than 30 years and, continuing the work of the Joliot-Curies, discovered fission, an accomplishment for which Hahn took the credit. During the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Lise’s life became increasingly imperiled since her grandmother was Jewish and, after Hitler’s forces invaded Austria, her passport provided no protection.  Secreted out of Germany by colleagues, she continued work in Sweden, collaborating with Hahn. This biography of the two scientists is also the story of the evolution of nuclear physics and the study of radioactivity in the 20th century. Captioned photographs and back matter, including a time line of the lives of the two women, an extensive glossary, a “Who’s Who” section, and source notes, provide additional information.


Ten Days a Mad Woman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly. Deborah Noyes. 2016. Viking/Penguin.

ten_days_a_madwomanLeaving her family home and her work as a writer for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who became known to newspaper readers as Nellie Bly, set out for New York City to find a position as a reporter in 1887.  The first part of the book chronicles her investigation of the practices of an insane asylum for women in which she convinced doctors and nurses that she was insane and lived in the asylum on Blackwell’s Island as an inmate for 10 days without any assurance of how she would be able to leave. The book also details her investigations of big business and government for which she had her own byline, unheard of at the time, before The World’s publisher, Joseph Pulitzer sponsored her round-the-world trip to learn whether Jules Verne’s 80 days could be beaten. Integrated into this biography that spans Nellie Bly’s life time are archival photographs and inserts that detail particular moments in her life, including her family and married life, and of the newspaper world. The author’s note provides more information and the source notes document the primary sources used in the book.


Ages 15+

Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History. Karen Blumenthal. 2016. Feiwel and Friends.

hillary_clintonReading this biography gives teens an engaging and accessible portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton, from her birth in 1947 and childhood years in Park Ridge, IL, to her April 2015 announcement that she would run for the Democratic nomination for President. Throughout the book, Blumenthal offers a clear picture of the people and experiences that have guided Clinton in the life choices she has made and the challenges she has faced as a woman in her professional and political life while wanting to keep her private life separate from her public life. The inclusion of an abundance of captioned photographs and “Drawn and Quartered” sidebars of editorial cartoons add interest. Back matter includes a time line; a bibliography with a note from Blumenthal on the shortage of “reliable, accurate, or complete information” about Hillary Rodham Clinton, which was a challenge in writing Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History; source notes; and an extensive index.


Sandip Wilson serves as associate professor in the College of Health and Education of Husson University in Bangor, ME. Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, CA.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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