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Best Middle-Grade Biographies & Memoirs of 2019

Watching Bryan generously transform the bittersweet into beauty is watching the meaning of art.



Renowned artist and children’s-book creator Bryan shares his journey through World War II.

Best known for his brightly colored paintings of flowers and joyful scenes, here Bryan shares a part of his life that was less bright. Bryan was in his third year of art school when he was recruited to join the U.S. Army in 1943. Training for service in an all-black battalion, being deployed to Europe to fight with the Allied Forces on D-Day, and spending months trying to get his men back home—these experiences did not stop Bryan from pursuing his development as an artist. He was always drawing and sketching, and his fellow soldiers and even some of his superiors encouraged him to do so. His years in the Army are effectively detailed in a multimedia format that has the intimate feel of a scrapbook being shared by the author. The main text is a retrospective narration surrounded by extensive primary documents: old photographs and documents, handwritten letters (whose contents are also set in a small blue type for easier reading), paintings, and sketches, both standing alone and overlaid on top of photographs. So many unique yet universal aspects of the human experience are touched upon in this lovingly shared memoir: the passion that kept an artist going through the most difficult times, the contradictions of war against Nazism with segregation at home and within the U.S. Army.

Watching Bryan generously transform the bittersweet into beauty is watching the meaning of art. (note, sources, index) (Memoir. 10-adult)

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-0490-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

From a long-lived American legend, this rich volume is a national treasure.



Much has been written about the black women mathematicians who worked behind the scenes at NASA; now young readers can hear Katherine Johnson’s story in her own words.

Johnson begins her autobiography with her decision, at the age of 4, to start attending school with her brother so she could help him with his math. Impressed, the teacher opened a kindergarten class, but soon Katherine was skipping entire grades. Her family relocated so that she and her siblings could attend high school and college (beyond seventh grade, there was no school for “colored” youth in their hometown). Johnson graduated college at 18 with degrees in French and mathematics before going on to teach and pursue her now-famous career at NASA, yet she comes across as humble and warm, passing on to her children the refrain her father taught her as inoculation against racism: “You are no better than anyone else, but nobody else is better than you.” Johnson describes the culture and way of life in each of the places where she lived and worked, with an honest portrayal of the common racial injustices and indignities alongside the shared humanity that also existed. She artfully weaves in the heart of how African American communities have survived and advanced—through “self-help and sacrificing” for the next generation. Her writing style is comfortable and conversational, making the book feel like a visit over tea that you wish would never end.

From a long-lived American legend, this rich volume is a national treasure. (Memoir. 9-adult)

Pub Date: July 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-4083-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

A lovingly honest memoir of a racial—and social activist—past that really hasn’t passed



“Sharon, I cannot promise you that the passage of any law will eliminate hate. But the laws will give Negroes full citizenship and bring us closer to equality.”

Legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson—most famously known for breaking baseball’s racial barrier when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—gave this nuanced benediction to his only daughter, 13-year-old Sharon, as the family heard the disheartening news of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. What the memoirist also beautifully and accessibly conveys is how her parents succeeded—and, by their admission, sometimes failed—in rooting her and her two brothers, 10-year-old David and 16-year-old Jackie Jr., in the realities of pater Robinson’s renown, Connecticut’s 1960s-style racial microaggressions, and the seismic social and political shifts augured by the emerging civil rights movement. Thanks to the author’s deft and down-to-earth style, readers understand how the personal and political converge: When her brother runs away from home in order to get away from his father’s shadow, she muses on the social pressures of a school dance in the midst of midcentury U.S. racism; it is at a jazz fundraiser her parents coordinate for the Southern Christian Leadership conference that she finally meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A lovingly honest memoir of a racial—and social activist—past that really hasn’t passed . (Memoir. 8-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-338-28280-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

A tragic but inspiring story about an event in South Africa’s history that must never be forgotten.



A white South African who grew up in apartheid, Wright captures the largely untold story of Hector Zolile Pieterson, who died in the Soweto student protest against mandatory lessons in Afrikaans in 1976 and whose photograph alerted the rest of the world to apartheid’s impact on black children.

Told graphic novel–style through dialogue and narrative in frames illustrated in pastel colors and earth tones, this story emerged from interviews Wright held with Pieterson’s family members as well as from research on the photographer of the historic photo, Sam Mzima, and Mbuyisa Makhubu, a teenage good Samaritan who carried Hector’s limp body from the scene where the police threw tear gas and shot and killed children. This powerful story offers three perspectives: Hector’s, his sister, Antoinette’s, and photographer Sam’s, respectively. Sam hid his most important roll of film in his sock to keep it from the Afrikaner police, who ruined his other rolls of film to prevent public awareness of this massacre. While the details of Hector’s life help readers realize that he was just a regular boy who didn’t deserve to die under this unjust system of segregation, this portrayal of the protesting teens also emphasizes how much power children can have when they stand up for their rights.

A tragic but inspiring story about an event in South Africa’s history that must never be forgotten. (historical note, author’s note, biographies, glossary, bibliography) (Graphic biography. 8-12)

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62414-691-6

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Page Street

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

An essential guide to the life of Bayard Rustin, architect of critical movements for freedom and justice.



Readers are introduced to Bayard Rustin, a brilliant, black, gay civil rights leader.

Principle organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was a landmark contributor to many of the turnkey moments of the civil rights movement, though his name and the fullness of his life have been relegated to the shadows due to his personal commitment to living as an out gay black man and his youthful relationship with communist organizing which he later renounced. Over time many people would attempt to weaponize these facts against him, yet Rustin remained true to his convictions, and his wisdom and clarity would ultimately be valued by many of those same people and institutions. This brief but comprehensive biography, written with the help of Rustin’s longtime partner, Naegle, and featuring stunning archival photographs, covers the legacy of a man who utilized the roots of his Quaker faith to uplift movements throughout the world. In clear prose with informative sidebars that provide important context, it follows Rustin from his pacifist beginnings to his work mentoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his later years traveling the world to support the rights of refugees. In today’s political landscape, this volume is a lesson in the courage to live according to one’s truth and the dedication it takes to create a better world.

An essential guide to the life of Bayard Rustin, architect of critical movements for freedom and justice. (endnotes, timeline, discussion questions, bibliography) (Biography. 10-18)

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87286-765-9

Page Count: 168

Publisher: City Lights

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

A mighty portrait of poverty amid cruelty and optimism.


Recounting his childhood experiences in sixth grade, Ogle’s memoir chronicles the punishing consequences of poverty and violence on himself and his family.

The start of middle school brings about unwanted changes in young Rex’s life. His old friendships devolve as his school friends join the football team and slowly edge him out. His new English teacher discriminates against him due to his dark skin (Rex is biracial, with a white absentee dad and a Mexican mom) and secondhand clothes, both too large and too small. Seemingly worse, his mom enrolls him in the school’s free-lunch program, much to his embarrassment. “Now everyone knows I’m nothing but trailer trash.” His painful home life proffers little sanctuary thanks to his mom, who swings from occasional caregiver to violent tyrant at the slightest provocation, and his white stepdad, an abusive racist whose aggression outrivals that of Rex’s mom. Balancing the persistent flashes of brutality, Ogle magnificently includes sprouts of hope, whether it’s the beginnings of a friendship with a “weird” schoolmate, joyful moments with his younger brother, or lessons of perseverance from Abuela. These slivers of relative levity counteract the toxic relationship between young Rex, a boy prone to heated outbursts and suppressed feelings, and his mother, a fully three-dimensional character who’s viciously thrashing against the burden of poverty. It’s a fine balance carried by the author’s outstanding, gracious writing and a clear eye for the penetrating truth.

A mighty portrait of poverty amid cruelty and optimism. (author’s note, author Q&A, discussion guide, writing guide, resources) (Memoir. 9-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00360-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Norton Young Readers

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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