A boy sits under a tree conversing with a dragon. The dragon appears to be part of the tree.

A boy sits under a tree conversing with a dragon. The dragon appears to be part of the tree.John Ronald’s Dragons is a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, focusing on the parts of his life that inspired his fantasy writing. The book invites you to see Gandalf in a headmaster who smoked a pipe, dragon’s smoke in the smoke pouring out of smokestacks in an industrial city, and the frightening Mines of Moria in World War I trenches.

The author, Caroline McAlister, is an English professor who teaches Tolkien, so the book carries with it an air of authority. The back matter includes an Author’s Note with more biographical details than are in the main text, a Catalog of Tolkien’s Dragons, and Quotes from Tolkien’s Scholarly Writing on Dragons, as well as a Bibliography.

Endpapers of book show dragons wheeling through air.The art manages to marry the everyday with the fantastical in wonderful illustrations. The endpapers are probably my favorite so far this year. I especially loved the Illustrator’s Note in the back matter, which comments, page by page, on details in the art. The illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, points out that she has painted one of Tolkien’s favorite childhood books, The Red Fairy Book on one spread; that she has added a specific piano in one illustration as homage to Tolkien’s grandfather; comments on how she used “forced perspective” to get in all the landmarks that needed to be in the illustration; and so on and so forth. I wish every illustrator did this! It made the book so much richer for me.

I can imagine parents who love Tolkien sharing this book with their children. I can imagine children being totally captivated by the images of dragons that pop up throughout the book. I wonder what they will take away from the picture book to their first reading of The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Rings, but maybe it will act not as a spoiler but as an accelerator, encouraging kids to plow into the books.

John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Roaring Brook Press: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Drawing of Dr. Seuss with a sketchpad.Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? His pictures and his rhymes are funny, inventive, and memorable. I usually write about traditional nonfiction picture books, but today I’m joining Michele Knott and Allyson Beecher in their #Road2Reading Challenge. Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler is an early reader biography that explores the life of the author/illustrator everybody knows.

I loved reading about Theodore Geisel’s early life–visits to the zoo with his sketchpad, his work on a college humor magazine–and seeing connections to his later work. The book includes wonderful details. Did you know he composed with wacky hats on his head? I was especially fascinated to read about Geisel/Seuss’s work as an editor.

The book is labeled as a Step 3 Step into Reading book. It’s a great example of an engaging subject written for young readers.

Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler, by Kate Klimo, pictures by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Random House: 2016)

Children reading books in a tree.

Cover of book showing many men, including athletes in full uniform, surrounding a tiny woman holding a pencil and a notepadMiss Mary Reporting is vintage Sue Macy–it’s the rollicking story of a woman breaking barriers in the world of sports. But this time, the woman isn’t an athlete but a reporter.

This picture book biography tells the story of Mary Garber, one of the first and arguably the most prominent early female sportswriter. We learn about many of the stories she covered–from football to Soap Box Derby racing–and about her experience reporting on Jackie Robinson as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

Mary Garber not only reported on a trailblazer but also became one in her own right. She insisted on covering black high school athletic events, not just ones from the white schools in her hometown of Winston-Salem. And of course being a female sports reporter brought its own set of challenges. Something as small as a press pass could prove a challenge for her:

Even after she was allowed in [the press box], Mary had to wear the football writers’ official press badge, which proclaimed, “Press Box: Women and Children Not Admitted.

As you would expect in a book about a reporter, the narrative voice is straightforward and sometimes reportorial. The back matter is lively and helpful. I especially loved seeing all of the quotes in the book–13 in all!–fully attributed.

C.F. Payne’s illustrations reminded me of editorial cartoons. They’re fun to look at and good cartoon likenesses of famous faces.

This video is long, but if you watch even a few minutes of it, you’ll be able to see the real Mary Garber and hear her voice.