The picture books I’ve chosen for #71-80 of my ReFoReMo Picture Book Reading Challenge are all autobiographies or biographies. Some may be more “creative” narratives than traditional nonfiction, but regardless, they are all filled with personality and voice.
71. THE WALL by Peter Sis 2007 Frances Foster Books
(Non-fiction/Autobiographical//PB/3rd POV/History- Cold War- Czechoslovakia-Berlin Wall)
WHY: Peter Sis has been a favorite author/illustrator of mine for years. When I taught 6th grade, I included his books in an author study unit. This one is quite different though.
WHAT: This autobiography is unique in that Peter Sis tells his story in 3rd person point of voice. By flipping the narration, it separates the reader from the author, allowing us to view his story a more of a history text than a personal journey.
HOW: There are many things to learn from this book as a mentor text.
1. With our own memoirs, explore what happens when we distance ourselves from the story. How does changing perspectives affect our stories?
2. Explore the history that you as a writer are most engaged in growing up. How has the historical context around you affected your narratives? Dig into this concept. Make a timeline if needed and look at the forces that have surrounded you and contribute to you as the writer/reader/teacher/student that you are today.
72. NOW AND BEN by Gene Barretta 2006 Henry Holt and Co.
(Creative NF/3rd POV/past-present-Benjamin Franklin-inventions)
WHY: What a catchy title! Not every topic lends itself to the convenience of a rhyme, but it takes a creative writer to find one and utilize it!
WHAT: With that creative title, Gene has found a perfect formula for comparing inventions that we take for granted now and those that Ben discovered hundreds of years ago! The left pages explain what we have in our world/society that the right hand page (Ben) invented.
HOW: This is a great opportunity to play with names and titles. Although Gene Barretta makes it seem like the story and form came to him easily, like all great things, I’m sure it wasn’t that simple. Titles are a great place to “play” with words. In this case, the title really sets the rest of the book. Making a running list of potential subjects and titles might just lead to a discovery that unfolds into a new story for you too!
73. BENNY GOODMAN AND TEDDY WILSON by Lesa Cline-Ransome Illustrated by James Ransome 2014 Holiday House (NF/Biography/PB/3rd POV/jazz-1920-30s-integration)
WHY: Another jazz-themed picture book for me, please! I love them!
WHAT: BENNY GOODMAN AND TEDDY WILSON is a wonderful example of why I love books about jazz musicians so much. There is an innate demand for the text of a book about musicians to have a melody, rhythm or sense of sound in the structure of text. Lesa conveys this through her use of onomatopoeia and poetic lyricism.
HOW: You should not read a book like this quietly, alone. Books with sound techniques in writing MUST be read out loud. Ask students to listen to the musical qualities. Then play a few of the musical pieces for them as well. How do they compare? (This is a big Common Core Standards type of question, by the way.) As a writer, how can I bring music or a specific sound to my writing? Onomatopoeia is one technique, but there are others: repetition, short vs long phrasing, rhyme, alliteration…
74. THE NOISY PAINT BOX by Barb Rosenstock Illustrated by Mary Grandpre 2014 Alfred A. Knopf (Narrative Nonfiction/PB/3rd POV/Vasily Kandinsky-art-inspiration-synthesia)
WHY: I truly enjoy the subjects that Barb Rosenstock writes. From Theodore Roosevelt to Louise Smith, she knows her subjects and is able to pinpoint exactly what it is about them that makes their lives “tick” for the reader.
WHAT: As I read this book again, a few things clicked that I specifically noted and liked. In the beginning (but not throughout) Barb uses a repetitive structure (similar to BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT) and then within two full pages, hits the reader with the singular pivotal point in Vasily’s life: he is given a paintbox. From that point forward, the story changes, much like his life does.
HOW: I would really like to look at my research subjects in this same way. Is there a point, a singular moment in life when everything changes? If so, how can I use this point to change the pace of my writing?
(NF/Biography/PB/3rd POV/Jacques Cousteau-underwater-discovery-diving)
WHY: I remember as a child being fascinated by Jacques Cousteau films. Little did I realize that I was part of the audience he was directing his movie for.
WHAT: MANFISH is packed with facts. It’s not necessarily a lyrical or creative nonfiction read, but it is informative. Sometimes, a subject needs this much coverage.
HOW: One of the many questions I keep asking myself as I read for this challenge is how do I want to approach my next subject? With the millions of picture books mentors, there is no one right answer. MANFISH is a great example of this. While many of the other books I’ve showcased have rhyme or repetition, this one doesn’t. But it covers everything a child would need to know about Mr. Cousteau in a mere 1225 words.
76. BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT by Carole Boston Weatherford Illustrated by Sean Qualls 2008 Henry Holt Books (NF/Biography/3rd POV/John Coltrane-jazz-music)
WHY: There are a cool dozen or so picture books about jazz on the shelves now. I really want to read them all!
WHAT: I like how Carole utilizes what my students and I call magic three--a series of three words, phrases or sentences for effect. She begins with “BEFORE John was a jazz giant…” and then uses a series to complete the sentence. The last two stanzas in the book change the pattern. Then, at the climax, she focuses on one event. This is where Carole adds ONE extra line. Then as the action in the plot falls, she concludes with only one memorable sentence to sum everything up. It’s wonderful!
HOW: As I mentioned, this book would be a great companion along with all the other fabulous jazz-themed books on the market today. How do different writers approach similar subjects? For the most part, the books I’ve read have focused on the musical talents and interest of the subjects as young children and trace their growth and emergence into the great musicians we recognize. I would be remiss not to mention Sean Qualls’ wonderful artwork. His paintings create sound and music themselves.
77. A BOY CALLED DICKENS by Deborah Hopkinson Illustrated by John Hendrix 2012 Schwartz & Wade Books (Creative-nonfiction-narrative/PB/Biography/3rd Person (But breaks the 4th wall)/Charles Dickens-London 1800s-writing inspiration)
WHY: With my 7th grade, traditionally, we read an abridged play version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL each year. I’m always looking for new ways to incorporate other reading along with our unit.
WHAT: Deborah Hopkinson must like Charles Dickens as much as I do. She’s focused on the points from Dickens’ stories that are most memorable and recognizable. At each stage in the young Dickens’ life, she interrupts or adds to the story the creative connections between the author, Dickens’ and his stories.
HOW: Of course, my first reaction is how I will use this in my classroom. I will have my students draw the parallels between Dickens’ life and the setting and lives of characters in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. As a mentor text, this reminds me of other books in this set I’ve read. Many of these stories have backdrops, settings, historical markers, that are significant contributions to the change and growth of the character. Look for these parallels in the subjects you research for nonfiction text.
78. 12 ROUNDS TO GLORY: THE STORY OF MUHAMMAD ALI by Charles R. Smith JR. Illustrated by Bryan Collier 2007 Candlewick Press
(NF/Biography/PB/2nd POV/rap-poetry-Muhammad Ali-boxing-Vietnam controversy)
WHY: As part of my 7th grade unit on leaders, I introduce Muhammad Ali and my students have often written their own raps to summarize their learning. That’s essentially what Charles R. Smith has done with this book.
WHAT: I love, love, love the sound of this book. It would take nearly an hour to read the entire book out loud, but it’s definitely worth it to read a chapter or two so that you can get the full sense of the beauty that the author has created. Muhammad Ali was well known for his quick rhyme. This book builds on that.
HOW: So much of what I’ve read the past few days has led me to an understanding of the use of the subject’s own voice, whether it’s an artistic voice, a musical voice, or a voice representative of the time and culture. As a writer, it’s clear, we have to use that voice, capture a bit of it, and slip it across to our readers in a way that makes it clear without losing the story. With Muhammad Ali, I have watched and listened to recordings of him. With Josephine Baker (see the next entry) I’ve watched clips of her in motion. Lesson: study everything about your subject. Everything.
79. JOSEPHINE by Patricia Hruby Powell Illustrated by Christian Robinson 2014 Chronicle Books (NF/Biography/PB/3rd POV/Josephine Baker-racism-fame)
WHY: Patricia is a talented author. She has a great passion for research and her hard work shows in her books.
WHAT: This is not a kindergarten through third picture book. This is a picture book for older readers. There are so many aspects of interest about this book (I’m glad I own it; I can keep looking back without having to check it out!). One feature I like are Patricia’s use of direct quotes. They ground the writing and focus the narrative. I also thoroughly enjoy her use of adjectives or invented nouns. Sprinkled throughout the text are hyphenated modifiers and strings of words (like the pearls on the cover…) that give a distinctive mood and voice to the story.
HOW: These creative and often original word choices are purposeful. There’s no measured point where one is added and then another, but they are used to regain the focus and continue the mood throughout the text. Is the mood or voice unclear or indistinct in your writing? Try adding a bit of flare and flavor by time-period specific words or colloquialisms and idioms.
(nonfiction/biography/PB/3rd POV/Harry Houdini-magic acts)
WHY: Kathleen Krull writes many nonfiction biographies that I’ve enjoyed reading during this “challenge”. Her subjects are often different and fill a vacancy or need on the shelves.
WHAT: This particular text, HOUDINI, is wordy and full of background in a typical 3rd person, expository way. However, what works about the book are the frequent interruptions to the story told in an announcer “voice” as if we, the reader, are part of the audience at one of Houdini’s magic shows.
HOW: I can’t help but think about other ways to draw the reader into the time period or events in a subject’s life as if we are there with them, side by side. It becomes a bit of time-traveling, and is especially effective in this combination of different POVs that Kathleen has used.