thoreauMany nonfiction picture books are written in the third person–he did this or she said that. A few are written in the first person–I did this. But it is the rare case to find one written in the second person.

By using second person narration, Robert Burleigh makes the reader a character in the book. Wendell Minor includes a child representing the reader in every illustration:

“If you spent a day with Henry David Thoreau,, you would knock on the door of Henry’s tiny house on the shore of Walden Pond. Hello, Henry!”

We spend the day doing simple things that a child might really do–drinking water or walking in the woods, or watching animals–and listening to Thoreau’s comments about the world. Putting the reading in the books is an ingenious strategy; it makes a philosopher’s musings accessible to a child reader.

My only frustration with the book was that I couldn’t tell if the things Thoreau says in the text are actual quotes or not. I tried to research them and quickly grew frustrated trying to figure out whether they were exact quotes (probably not, but I’m not sure) or paraphrases (possibly) or simple inventions based on Thoreau’s philosophies. I heartily wished for source notes in the back matter.

The back matter, though, does include more details about Thoreau’s life (along with more unreferenced quotes).

If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor. Henry Holt: 2012.

How do you summarize a life like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s for a picture book biography? Barbara Kerley did it by choosing one theme–Emerson’s desire for a home–and follows it throughout his life. We see him longing for a home as a child, building a home and community with his wife, losing his home to a fire, and in old age finding his home restored by the community he had built. It’s a hopeful, lovely message.

And it is brilliantly executed. The quotations–how could there not be quotations in a book about Emerson?–are seamlessly incorporated into the text:

He wandered the narrow noisy streets of Boston dreaming of “a home, comfortable and pleasant.”

And they settled into, as he put it, “the lukewarm milky dog days of common village life.”

Kerley zeroes in on memorable details and renders them with an ear tuned to reading aloud:

Every morning, Mr. Emerson ate pie made from his own apples for breakfast.

The book is filled with delightful lists:

[He shared] the names of birds and varieties of pears: Bluebird, bobolink, robin, thrush. Flemish Beauty, Andrews, Bartlett, Dix.

Edwin Fotheringham’s whimsical illustrations amplify the excellent prose. A great read!

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic: 2014