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.


Cover of Margaret and the Moon shows Margaret Hamilton contemplating the full moon as an astronaut and lunar module drift pastLot of recent books about female scientists! An eighteenth century astronomer. a marine biologist, a computer programmer. And today, a female member of the moon launch team is profiled in Margaret and the Moon.

I loved the voice of the book, and its quick pace. The book starts, “Margaret Hamilton loved to solve problems. She came up with ideas no one had ever thought of before.” The spare, efficient text tells about her interests as a child and about how finding computers changed her sense of what was possible. It’s exciting to see her struggling with the problems faced by space travel. The culminaton of the book is the moment when it looks like the computers may fail the astronauts in space, but it becomes clear that Hamilton’s careful computer coding has properly anticipated the problems, and solved them far in advance.

The illustrations are by graphic novelist Lucy Knisley. I loved her art in Relish and it’s just as accessible and fresh here. All of the text is hand-lettered (or maybe just looks hand-lettered?). The back endpapers include black and white photos of the real Margaret Hamilton. I kept flipping back and forth between the photos and the illustrations. Knisley does a great job capturing the look of the actual Margaret Hamilton in the illustrations.

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Lucy Knisley. Alfred A. Knopf: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Cover of Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code shows a woman fiddling with an early computerGrace Hopper Queen of Computer Code celebrates the life of one of the pioneers of computer programming. The book is structured like a pearl necklace–it’s made up of a series of discrete anecdotes, strung together in roughly chronological order. Each anecdote tells us a bit about Grace Hopper’s character, but each basically also stands on its own. We read about the way she destroyed alarm clocks as a child in order to figure out how they worked, about her invention of a dollhouse elevator, about her conquering learning Latin, etc. It’s a life, with all the boring bits taken out and just the sparkling stories left behind.

I loved reading about Hopper’s experiences as a child that pointed her toward a technical field, about her experiences in college, and about how she famously found the first computer “bug.”

Throughout the book, quotations from Hopper are incorporated into the illustrations. I loved hearing her voice–feisty, joking, passionate–emerge in those quotes. The back matter spills onto the end papers, as if there just weren’t enough pages to contain “Amazing Grace.”

Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu. Sterling: 2017


Children with book around a globe

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

Cover of Shark Lady shows a woman in scuba gear underwater with a sharkIt’s sometimes tough for kids–and adults!–to look at successful adults and figure out what their success has to do with the day-to-day life they had as children. In Shark Lady Jess Keating does a wonderful job of showing how childhood interests and passions led to Eugenie Clark’s important discoveries as a marine biologist.

Clark is today known for her discoveries about sharks, but she didn’t even see her first wild shark until after college. And yet a full half of the book is devoted to Clark’s life before she graduated from college. How does Keating make it work? She helps us see the rich imaginative life Clark had as a child: “What would it be like to swim with her sharks? To breather underwater with gills of her own?” She shows us things Clark did not specifically related to sharks that eventually helped her as a scientist. We see her reading in the library. We see her tending a home aquarium with guppies, goldfish, and snails. We see her swimming and diving for fun. By the end of the book I was convinced of Clark’s passionate exuberance for her subject matter, and I loved thinking about how everyday childhood interests propelled her down her path.

The art in the book is rounded and delights in whimsy–fish and sharks swimming down the aisles of the natural history museum along with the patrons, lurking behind bookshelves in the library. The endpapers are covered with wonderful drawings of sharks and sea creatures.

The back matter includes digestible and highly entertaining “Shark Bites”–fascinating quick facts about sharks, a nicely composed timeline of Eugenie Clark’s life, and an author’s note focusing on Clark’s legacy and the research Keating did for the book.

This is, of course, a great book to pair with Swimming with Sharks, Heather Lang’s picture book biography of Eugenie Clark, but it stands exuberantly, delightfully on its own, the story of one child’s passion fueling an entire career.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the World’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens. Sourcebooks: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

A woman in old-fashioned dress flying in a basket under a balloon.Balloons! Fancy hats! Napoleon! All this plus female empowerment. Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot is a biography of an eighteenth century woman balloonist. As Matthew Clark Smith warns in the back matter, “I was forced to use my imagination in describing Sophie’s childhood.” But he grounds it in real events of the same time–“Fashionable ladies wore balloon-shaped hats. Families dined on balloon-painted plates.” The book, especially in the early pages, probably crosses the boundary out of nonfiction, but it is a sacrifice that I think is required in order to tell a story that would otherwise be silenced.

Most of the illustrations show Sophie’s hair blowing in the wind. The book seems, appropriately, breezy, as if we were up in the air with Sophie.

I loved the brief mention of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries’ balloon flight over the English Channel when “they  had to toss everything overboard to keep from crashing into the sea–even their trousers!” Makes me want to pull out A Voyage to the Clouds to read as a companion book. The tone of the two books couldn’t be more different, but some of the content is the same. I can imagine fascinating conversations and an interesting Venn diagram or two from a comparison of the two books with kids.

Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares. Candlewick: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Cover of book shows female astronaut floating in space near space shuttleMost picture book biographies, unsurprisingly, have a linear structure. Someone did something and then did something else and then did something else. To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space uses a refreshingly different structure. One spread shows Dr. Kathy Sullivan’s interests and activities as a child or teenager, and then the next spread shows an analogous task in her adult work as an astronaut. This structure invites readers to make thematic connections between disparate parts of her life. I think it would be a fun book to use to make predictions. After reading about a childhood activity, challenge kids to think of how that might have prepared her for her work as an astronaut?

The structure is reflected in the typeface choice. Each spread that shows modern-day life for Dr. Sullivan is printed in italic, emphasizing the shifting timeframe.

The book has lots of dialogue and quotes that are unattributed in the back matter, but since Sullivan is a co-author, I trust them.

There are 2 full spreads of back matter, including a note from Dr. Sullivan and a biographical essay about her. My favorite part, though, was the list of short biographies of 13 other women astronauts. I hadn’t heard of most of them. but even the short glimpse of their lives was fascinating and inspiring.

This is a great companion book to another astronaut book from last year that examined how childhood experiences shaped adult passions–The Darkest Dark.

To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space by Carmella VanVleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan, illustrated by Nicole Wong. Charlesbridge: 2016.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Cover of book shows woman looking across ocean sceneI love to find nonfiction picture books about women in science! This lovely new picture book tells the story of Marie Tharp, a cartographer and ocean researcher. She didn’t live that long ago, but she still encountered lots of opposition to her working in science. She managed to carve out a tiny place for herself at the ocean-studies lab at Columbia University and with a colleague came up with the idea of mapping the ocean floor.

Because she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to actually do the research required to make the map, but she gathered all the data and figured out how to put it into a usable form. In her work, she became convinced that the theory of tectonic plates was accurate and then used her maps to convince her colleagues. What a great role model of a gutsy, persistent scientist!

The book is written in first person, a choice that makes it easy for the reader to identify with Marie Tharp’s passions, patience, and success.

The back matter includes an interesting glossary (interesting! a glossary!) of terms related to Marie Tharp’s work: Pangaea, Ring of Fire, seafloor spreading. There’s also an interesting section titled “Things to Wonder About and Do” which invites young readers to do things like make soundings in a lake, to research deep ocean spots online, and to speculate about the center of the earth.

Raul Colon’s art is beautiful and lovely accompaniment to this biography. This video profiles another book he did using the same materials he used in this book.

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raul Coloon. Paula Wiseman Books (Simon & Schuster): 2016.

Cover of book shows Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass talking to each otherIn this voting year, no child is going to escape bombardment with news about the election. But will those children understand the significance and context that led to that vote? Two new books look at the right to vote in very different ways.

The first book is Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass is an account of the famous tea party where they met and discovered that they shared similar opinions. In the text, Dean Robbins opens with them having tea together. In flashback, he uses parallel structures to show the opinions they held in common about the right to vote. We read that Susan:

read about rights in the United States.

The right to live free.

The right to vote.

Some people had rights, while others had none.

Why shouldn’t she have them, too?

A few pages later we read that Frederick:

read about rights in the United States.

The right to live free.

The right to vote.

Some people had rights, while others had none.

Why shouldn’t he have them, too?

 The book is an interesting contrast to Friends for Freedom, which is also about the tea party. In tone, though, the books couldn’t be more different. Two Friends is a lyrical, spare account, while Friends for Freedom, which is much more reportorial, gives a lot more details about their collaboration. The two would make an interesting comparison in a classroom. It would be a great way to discuss tone and authorial choices.

Cover of book showing Elizabeth Cady Stanton leading women in a march for rightsAnother book that has just come out is also about the right to vote, but instead of focusing in on a single event, it covers the sweep of the women’s suffrage movement, from 1776 to the present day. In Elizabeth Started All the Trouble, Doreen Rappaport takes us on a whirlwind tour of the people and events that led to American women finally getting the vote.

It’s a hard thing to get a survey topic right in a picture book, but Rappaport does a great job. This would be a good book to read before reading many other books about women’s suffrage, as well as other civil rights, to put things into context.

The western US states come out looking a lot better than the eastern states when it comes to women’s suffrage! (And as a Utah native, I’d like to point out that while Wyoming was the first state where women kept the vote, Utah women also received the right to vote in 1869, after a unanimous vote of the state legislature, but the US Congress stripped them of that right in 1887 and they had to wait 8 years to win it back.)

Books like these are especially important in an election year, to help young readers understand the historic significance of the vote. These are a great addition to that stack of voting picture books.

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. Orchard: 2016

Elizabeth Started All the Trouble, by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Disney Hyperion: 2016.