Today I’m reading picture book biographies of two trail-blazing female artists: Zaha Hadid, an architect; and Amalia Hernandez, a dancer

The World Is Not a Rectangle introduced me to Zaha Hadid.

I loved learning about this architect I’d never heard of, and found myself falling down an Internet rabbit hole of looking at her designs!

The book starts with her childhood in Baghdad, Iraq, where she explored the countryside, thought about ancient cities, and lived with Persian carpets. We follow her to London and get a glimpse of her architectural training and then see her set up shop as an architect, making design after design that is not built. But “Hadid means iron in Arabic, and Zaha is strong as iron. She keeps on working–one plan after another. ‘I made a conscious decision not to stop.'”

And eventually her persistence pays off. In the most wonderful pages of the book, Winter draws the buildings Hadid designed, with their flowing, organic shapes, next to the natural features that inspired her designs.

I loved reading Danza! by Duncan Tonatiuh not because it was unknown but because it was about such a very familiar institution–ElCover of Danza! shows Mexican folk dancers Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. When I was an exchange student in Mexico, we of course went to a performance, and I have seen similar dances in the United States. But I had never known about the passionate dancer behind the institution: Amalia Hernandez.

The book tells the story of Hernandez’ early dance training and how that eventually led her to looking for a way to put traditional Mexican dances on the stage. Tonatiuh’s art is spot-on for this project. His profile characters and the carefully detailed costumes he puts on them, along with the set and stage details he includes capture my memory of that night when I watched El Ballet Folklorico better than any photographs I’ve ever seen.

I loved the extra details he shares in the back matter–including the controversy over the way some people saw her as appropriating folk dances.

The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane Books: 2017.

Danza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuh. Abrams: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.


Rhino strides across the savannah. White-haired woman is in the background standing next to her home.Rhino in the House tells the story of an environmentalist I’d never before heard of. Anna Merz found her retirement to Kenya took an unexpected turn when she began to worry about the safety of the rhinoceroses around her. They were being poached and becoming more and more endangered. So she set up a rhinoceros refuge. This book is about her relationship with an orphaned baby rhino. She cared for it and eventually released it onto the refuge, but it always stayed close to Anna, returning to visit with her and walk with her.

The pencil illustrations in this book are charming, soft rounded edges on the cartoon style showing the warmth and heart of the story. In the back matter, Daniel Kirk talks about how he was having difficulty with the illustrations until he and his son flew to Kenya and spent a week on the refuge. He took photographs and sketched and interviewed a woman who would have been there at the time period of the book so he could get the illustrations right. Illustrations are a key component of nonfiction picture book, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that the illustrators research just as much as the writers do to create an accurate, accessible book for kids.

I loved the endpapers in this book. The front pages show the sun rising on the savannah. The back pages show the sun setting.

Animal-loving kids will adore this book and it will pair well with other stories about activists who protect wild animals. Look, for example, for Me, JaneA Boy and a Jaguar; and Shark Lady.

Rhino in the House: The True Story of Saving Samra by Daniel Kirk. Abrams: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of Ada's Ideas shows girl on a mechanical horse, flying through the airAt last, Ada Byron Lovelace is getting some recognition. Last year, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine came out to critical acclaim. This year Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer was published by Abrams.

Both books cover some of the same basic facts about Lovelace: her parents were a poet and a mathematician; she had a lonely childhood but loved to experiment; her life was changed when she met Charles Babbage, who invented the first computer, and she wrote the first computer program for his unfinished invention.

Yet for all their similarities, the two books have a very different feel. Last year’s book focuses more on specific childhood events. Its art (pencil drawings) is dense and detailed, composed like paintings you might see on the walls of museums.

Ada’s Ideas focuses less on Lovelace’s childhood. In it, we get a broader view of her life–for example, we learn that she married and had children. Most significantly, it examines the social and historical context of her life. We learn that she lived during the time of the blossoming of the Industrial Revolution and we see how her nascent computer program was inspired and informed by new weaving technology.

The art in Ada’s Ideas feels airy, whimsical, and playful. It’s made of watercolor pictures that have been cut out, layered, and then photographed.

Both books are interesting, but even more interesting is to put the two of them side by side. I think Ada Byron Lovelace would have fully approved.

Here’s a book trailer for Ada’s Ideas.

Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson. Abrams: 2016

Children around a globe.



Every week I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of Cloth Lullaby, showing girls in a tent looking at gardenThe language in this beautiful book about artist Louise Bourgeois is lyrical and full of abstract language: metaphors, similes, and sly double-meaning phrases. Right from the first line we’re plunged into the world of words packed tight with meaning:

“Louise was raised by a river.”

The obvious meaning is that her family lived next to a river–which they did–but the book also quietly suggests that she became who she was because of the river–that the river raised Louise.

The metaphors and similes are rich and evocative:


Her family lived in a big house on the water that wove like a wool thread through everything.

Louise wove together a cloth lullaby.

Drawing was like a thread in a spider’s web.

It’s fitting that all of this abstract, figurative language is used to describe an artist whose work was symbolically figurative. We see in the back matter some of the amazing spiders she sculpted–her favorite subject–including one with a tapestry body.

The art in the book is beautiful and slightly surreal, matching the language beautifully. The production values of the book are rich and satisfying, too. The book has a cloth binding–absolutely appropriate for a book about a textile artist.

I’m so glad Alyson Beecher highlighted this book earlier this month on Kid Lit Frenzy. You can see more of the beautiful art in the book at Brain Pickings while you wait to get your own copy.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Abrams Books for Young Readers: 2016.

Children surrounding a globe and the words "Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016" I participate in Kid Lit Frenzy‘s 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.