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Best Picture-Book Biography of 2019

A runaway success.


The important thing about this review is to say this picture book is great.

Here and now, we say to Barnett and Jacoby: We SEE what you’ve done. You’ve paid tribute to a woman who changed picture books. Forever. You’ve acknowledged her queerness, telling readers she fell in love “with a woman called Michael / and a man called Pebble.” You’ve honored her words with references to such titles as Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, The Little Fur Family, and more. You’ve sat with her respect for child readers as thinking, feeling, whole beings, and you’ve invited us, your readers, and hers, to do the same. You’ve framed her conflict with a stuffy librarian as an epic, funny battle. Just like Brown’s texts, yours is quirky, and sweet, experimental, funny, and at times heartbreakingly gorgeous. And Jacoby channels Clement Hurd, and Leonard Weisgard, and Garth Williams, and so many other Brown collaborators—and yet? Jacoby remains herself. Just like Margaret Wise Brown was herself, her whole life long. Or her whole life short, really, right? Isn’t it a shame she died so young? At 42—as you document in this picture-book biography, this love letter to her life, and to her astonishing legacy to children’s literature. Honestly? We don’t know what more to say. But we guess we will say this: have a carrot. You’ve earned it. And so much more. The important thing is that you wrote this picture book—this picture book about Margaret Wise Brown.

A runaway success. (Picture book/biography. 5-adult)

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-239344-9

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Like a concerto for the heart.



Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño performs for President Abraham Lincoln amid a raging Civil War in Engle and López’s portrait of an artist.

Thanks to parental encouragement, Teresita learned about “all the beautiful / dark and light keys / of a piano” at an early age. By the age of 6, she composed original songs. Revolución in Venezuela soon drove an 8-year-old Teresa and her family to sail across the stormy sea to the United States, but the Carreño family arrived only to find another violent conflict—“the horrible Civil War”—in their adopted country. Despite the initial alienation that comes from being in an unfamiliar country, Teresita continued to improve and play “graceful waltzes and sonatas, / booming symphonies, and lively folk songs.” The Piano Girl’s reputation spread far, eventually garnering the attention of Lincoln, who invited the 10-year-old to perform at the White House! Yet the Civil War festered on, tormenting Teresita, who wished to alleviate the president’s burdens for at least one night. “How could music soothe / so much trouble?” Half biographical sketch, half wide-eyed tribute, Engle and López’s collaboration endearingly builds to Teresa’s fateful meeting with Lincoln like a gravitational pull, with bursts of compassion and admiration for both artist and public servant. Engle’s free verse whirls and twirls, playful and vivacious, while López’s vivid, colorful artwork elevates this story to heavenly heights.

Like a concerto for the heart. (historical note) (Informational picture book. 4-6)

Pub Date: Aug. 27, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4814-8740-5

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

A splendid picture-book celebration of an artist and activist.



Pencil in hand, faced with an unjust world, Gyo Fujikawa created a new future.

At 5, Japanese American Gyo Fujikawa didn’t yet know what she wanted to be. She knew a pencil fit well in her hand, and she liked to fill empty pages with pictures of her world. As she grew, Fujikawa used her passion for art and her mother’s activism to guide her education and inspiration. Defying gender conventions, Fujikawa attended college in 1926, when few American women did. Studying in Japan, she exchanged restrictive art classes for travel and aesthetic immersion. Back in the U.S., her family was sent to an internment camp on the West Coast while she began an art career at Disney on the East Coast, causing Fujikawa to lose her desire to draw. Eventually, she found a way to wield her craft to fight injustice. Her first book, Babies, published in 1963, featured racially diverse babies playing together and became a huge success despite publisher prejudice and misgivings. Morstad’s artwork precisely balances white space with vignettes, black-and-white illustrations with eye-catching color. Often mimicking Fujikawa’s style, Morstad layers engaging details and deep emotional resonance onto Maclear’s spare, poetic text. Backmatter includes a detailed timeline with photos and quotes, an extensive note from the creators, and a selected bibliography and sources list.

A splendid picture-book celebration of an artist and activist. (Picture book/biography. 5-8)

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-244762-3

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

A champion indeed



Honing skills first learned from Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse friends in eastern Oregon, African-American cowboy George Fletcher bucked his way into legend at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up.

Nelson introduces readers to George as a boy learning his craft on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, where his family settled after moving from Kansas. Racism from the local whites cemented his friendship with the Native kids, and he absorbed their lessons in horsemanship. From the age of 16, he competed in rodeos that didn’t exclude black competitors. Nelson plaits her narrative with Western lingo and homespun similes: “Ranching fit George like made-to-measure boots.” The centerpiece of her narrative is the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, where 21-year-old George competed against Nez Perce cowboy Jackson Sundown and white rancher John Spain. Here, Nelson puts as much effort into developing their broncs as characters as she does the humans, drawing from meticulous primary-source research to place readers in the moment. Although George mesmerized the audience with his skill, Spain was awarded first place—an act of unfairness recognized by the local sheriff, a decent white man, who spontaneously led a successful effort to anoint George “People’s Champion.” James’ painterly oils swirl with energy, visible daubs creating the dusty, monumental landscape and equally monumental horses and humans. Six pages of backmatter include a glossary, bibliography, further information on Fletcher and other key players, and a fascinating discussion of the research challenges Nelson encountered.

A champion indeed . (Picture book/biography. 6-10)

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5124-9808-0

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Carolrhoda

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

An important contribution to this volatile chapter in U.S. and Mexican American history



In 1918, José de la Luz Sáenz left his teaching job and enlisted in the United States Army, where he joined thousands of other Mexican American soldiers.

“He wanted to demonstrate that Mexican Americans loved America and would give their lives fighting for it,” writes Tonatiuh. Luz felt that the white people of Texas would start treating Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent) fairly after seeing their sacrifice. Once in France, Luz taught himself French and was assigned to the intelligence office to translate communications, but he was not given credit or promotions for this vital work. After the war, he and other Tejano veterans found prejudice against them unchanged. They organized and became civil rights leaders. In 1929, 10 years after the end of World War I, they formed the League of United Latin American Citizens. Together they fought against school segregation, racism, prejudice, and “for the ideals of democracy and justice.” The author’s insightful use of Sáenz’s war-diary entries boldly introduces this extraordinary American’s triumphs and struggles. In Tonatiuh’s now-trademark illustrations, Luz crouches with other stylized doughboys in French trenches as shells explode in no man’s land and mourns a fallen fellow Mexican in a French cemetery. Extensive backmatter includes an author’s note, war timeline, timeline of LULAC’s successful civil rights lawsuits, glossary, and bibliography.

An important contribution to this volatile chapter in U.S. and Mexican American history . (Picture book/biography. 6-8)

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4197-3682-7

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Abrams

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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