Cover of The Music in George's Head shows George Gershwin seated at a pianoThe Music in George’s HeadGeorge Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue is an elegantly-structured story. The book has three main parts. First, we learn about the many types of music Gershwin listened to as a boy. For example, “He just couldn’t stop thinking about Melody in F, a classical tune he’d heard at the penny arcade.” He played ragtime on the piano, listened to classical pianists, “roller-skated to New York’s Harlem neighborhood to hear the smooth syncopated jazz rhythms in clubs,” listened to noise on the city streets, and sampled a wide variety of styles in his job playing piano to sell sheet music at a music store.

The second part of the book focuses on how Gershwin, as an adult, composed Rhapsody in Blue. We see him work hard–and unsuccessfully–to put the music on his head on paper. We see him keep trying to solve the problem as he goes on a train trip. And finally we see him write out what he had imagined. Rhapsody in Blue.

The final part of the book gives us a glimpse of the first public performance of Rhapsody in Blue. We see the audience start to get bored by the too-long numbers before Gershwin’s piece. But then “a clarinet fluttered softly, like butterfly wings” and Rhapsody in Blue begins. “People were surprised to hear new melodies mixed with classical, ragtime, jazz, and the blues.”

I loved the design of this book. The type flows in organic lines and different sizes emphasize important words. The artist’s palette is blue and black, with brown highlights. It’s a surprising choice but it works very well here with the sketchy, improvised look of the art.

Calkins Creek Publishing typically lavishes care on back matter. This book is no exception. The author’s note gives fascinating details that had to be left out of the main text and talks about Gershwin’s legacy in American culture.

Ideally, you’ll want to listen to Rhapsody in Blue while you read this book, but if you can’t do that, the text may make you hear it in your mind anyway.

The Music in George’s HeadGeorge Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Calkins Creek: 2016.

Children around a globe.



I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challene every week at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of book showing Dorothea Lange. Dorothea's eyes are looking through viewfinder of an old-fashioned camera.Dorothea’s Eyes fills a gap. Here, at last, is a biography of the great photographer Dorothea Lange.

In her straightforward text, Rosenstock tells the story of Lange’s life. She traces how Lange’s childhood polio gave her keen empathy. We see Lange face struggles as the child of a single mother. We watch her insist that photography is her path, even without family support. Finally, we see her shift attention away from her successful and lucrative photography studio. She begins to photograph real people in challenging circumstances.

My favorite part of the book was the reproductions of some of her iconic and moving photographs on the final page of text.

If you want to delve into more of her photographs, check out the Library of Congress website. It has excellent resources for teachers, homeschoolers and individuals. You can find lesson plans and primary sources (including Lange photos) about the Great Depression here. Here you can see multiple shots from the session in which “Migrant Mother” was made.

There have lately been other interesting stories about photographs and photographers. If you want to delve deeper into this very modern art, try looking at these books.

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, by Roxane Orgill. Candlewick: 2016.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford. Whitman: 2015.

Coming soon! Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature, by Cindy Jenson-Elliott. Henry Holt: September 2016.

Dorothea’s Eyes by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Gerard DuBois. Calkins Creek: 2016..

Children surrounding a globe and the words "Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016"


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy

Cover of book, showing Ruth Law flying in a biplane.What did it take to be a woman aviator in the early 1900s? Pluck. Intelligence. Courage.

Ruth Law had them all. This story of her record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City had me worrying for her, pulling for her, and ultimately applauding her success.

I especially loved the way quotes from Law are used throughout this book. There are thirteen quotes in all, and each of them is strategically placed for maximum impact. None of them are introduced with “she said” or any dialogue tag at all. They give the reader a sense of immediacy, as if I were really hearing Ruth Law tell her own story. For example, as she enters New York City, I read:

Gliding, Ruth circled around the State of Liberty toward Governor’s Island.

“She smiled at me when I went past. She did!…I think we both feel alike about things.”

As soon as I turned to the back matter, I knew this book had to have been published by Calkins Creek. They love back matter and lavish care and attention on it. We get two full pages of “More About Ruth Law,” giving more details about this trip as well as telling what happened to her after the trip. There’s a full page of bibliographic material and more than a full page of source attribution for the quotes–all in type just as big as that used in the rest of the book!

I especially loved the photos in the back matter. That, combined with Raul Colon’s pencil illustrations, made the book feel alive. You can get a glimpse of the photos and the illustrations together in this one minute long trailer. 

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang, pictures by Raul Colon. Calkins Creek: 2016

Ben Franklin  This book is based on a passage in a letter (helpfully included in the book’s back matter) where Franklin describes his youthful invention of a swimming aid: swim fins and flippers! Using that single paragraph as her starting point, Barb Rosenstock imagines the process young Ben Franklin–or anyone–would follow to invent something new.

The book is a buoyant read. Every page is filled with “s” alliteration in lists of verbs telling what Franklin did to develop his invention:

speculated…stared…sprinted away

sketched…snapped up…shaped…sanded…strung on…strapped on

sprinted…stood…stripped off…strapped…stuck…spread…stomped…splashed in…sunk

And this is just the beginning of the “s” lists! Many of the verbs are helpfully highlighted, which would make this book a dream to teach in a lesson on alliteration.

Ben’s invention doesn’t really work that well. In fact, you could say it was a belly flop. But Rosenstock’s text leaves us with a shiver of giddiness rather than a feeling of defeat.

It’s a fun story about the process of invention, the scientific method, and one of America’s founding father. What’s not to like?

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Calkins Creek: 2014

Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is an amazing story in itself, but Rosenstock puts the streak in its historical context. We see how DiMaggio struggled to achieve the record and how his brilliant success gave hope to a nation facing a world war. Rosenstock sets the stage deftly on the first page where she talks about the first hit in DiMaggio’s streak:

It wasn’t news. Instead, the headlines in 1941 shouted about the war spreading like a fever through Europe.

She keeps her focus on DiMaggio, but with a few words here and there, we’re reminded of that war threatening in the distance.

Rosenstock’s verbs quiver with life: “whip,” “scuff,” “roar,” “soak,” “surge,” “yell,” “grab,” “rub,” “pound,” “trot,” “dance.” Her narrative voice is muscular and nimble. It’s a fun book to read aloud.

The back matter is satisfyingly hefty. She writes more than 500 words about what happened next, gives us memorable quotes and statistics, as well as providing quote attributions and explaining the sources of the newspaper headlines shown in the illustrations.

I admire Rosenstock’s ability to shape real life into a compelling, vivid story. She’s on her own streak with with creating great nonfiction picture books.

Here’s the one minute trailer, which focuses on the mystery aspect of the book: can DiMaggio break the streak without his beloved bat?

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Terry Widener. Calkins Creek: 2014.