The attention-grabbing title, the intriguing cover, and the scene-setting subtitle will compel readers to take a look inside. Once there, they will be transported to Atlantic City, 1936, where Ivy Cordelia thinks she is the luckiest girl in the world. This is where she will spend the summer while her father takes photographs of the boardwalk. Best of the attractions—boxing kangaroos, card-playing cats, daredevils sitting on flagpoles, dancing tigers, sand artists, and human cannonballs—are the high-diving horses. Every day Ivy watches as a pretty teenaged girl in helmet and bathing suit sits astride a horse high on a platform and they plunge into a tank of water. Ivy is only eight, but she dreams of being one of those girls. The immediacy of the first-person voice and the magnetic force of the scenes are totally engaging, attributable, perhaps, to the fact that both author and illustrator have childhood experiences from Atlantic City (as explained in notes from each). Lewin’s (Tooth and Claw, p. 235, etc.) note also describes how he created his illustrations in the style of linen postcards that were popular then by first making black-and-white paintings and then applying thin washes of color. The result is his familiar detailed realistic artwork with images that fully evoke the sights, stunts, and sounds of the place and time. Excellent page composition incorporates animation and movement into the panorama. The story and illustrations fuse together, placing readers at the scene and making them wish they were there, delightfully capturing the thrill of a unique time and place. (Picture book. 5-9)
In this terrific picture-book biography, Scat Cat Monroe, a slick, fast-talking cat tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Scat. Scat Cat (who shares author credit on the title page) claims to have been there from the start and considers himself the keeper of Ella’s flame. Cleverly organized in four tracks instead of chapters, his account chronicles Fitzgerald’s unlikely debut at an Apollo Theatre talent contest as a 17-year-old who sings only because she’s too scared to dance. From there, it moves to her rousing success with the Chick Webb Orchestra, and then to her eventual teaming up with Dizzy Gillespie, when she would rechart the course of bebop. The prose is jazzy and rhythmic in the voice of a hipster, and it’s expertly illustrated with images inspired by the works of Harlem Renaissance artists, clueing readers to several departure points for further study. In this vein, the team provides useful afterwords explaining their methods and the historical backdrop to the story—complete with bibliography, videography, and selected discography. The design of this effort is quite remarkable; from time to time, words splash across the pages, and change in font and size, effectively mirroring rhythms and meanings. Using Scat Cat as the narrator allows easy access for younger readers, and his in-the-know voice will win over older ones. Anyone who enjoyed the Pinkneys’ other cultural collaborations—Alvin Ailey (1995) and Duke Ellington (1998)—will love what they’ve done with Ella. Others may simply find themselves inspired by these tales of her genius for invention. Cool. (Picture book/biography. 5-9)
In Florida, 1942, a most unusual collaboration took place. George Balanchine, the great expatriate Russian choreographer, created a dance for John Ringling North’s circus elephants to music by his good friend, the great expatriate Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Schubert’s understated but informative text contrasts delightfully with the grand goings-on as elephants rehearse for weeks in lovely pink tutus. With Modoc, an Indian elephant performing a pas de deux with Vera Zorina, a popular ballet and Broadway star, the staging was a dazzling success. Parker’s watercolor designs swirl about, capturing the procession of elephants, the skyline of St. Petersburg and the exuberance of four-legged creatures looking even more elegant than the ballerinas. An afterword and photographs provide additional information and confirm that the ballet, occasionally performed today with ballet students, actually took place. A charming tale to share with young fans of the circus and ballet. (bibliography, web sites, extensive author note) (Picture book. 4-7)
Still a name with which to conjure, Houdini left swaths of his past and his techniques shrouded in mystery—but here veteran biographer Krull peeks behind the curtain for glimpses of his life, his feats and his character. It’s that character that comes through most clearly; “fierce about his craft,” Houdini dedicated himself to perfecting his escapes—several of which get blow-by-blow, present-tense recaps that invite readers to share the audience’s amazement—while polishing his legend and, as he quipped, “making an honest million.” In smoothly accomplished oils, Velasquez frames much of the tale as a stage performance narrated by an announcer in top hat and tails; adding posters and other evocative details to the settings, the artist accurately depicts the magician, his wife and many of the trunks, cases, shackles and other constraints from which he escaped with (seeming) ease. Budding magicians won’t find more than hints here of how Houdini did it, but a tempting set of print and digital resources caps this perceptive and dramatic tribute. (bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)
Little has been written about Annette Kellerman, the founder of water ballet and modernizer of the female swimsuit; Corey’s lively descriptions and powerful phrasing successfully fill this niche. Despite the societal restraints placed on women in the early 1900s, Kellerman became an accomplished Australian athlete and attempted to swim the English Channel. Combining athletic feats with artistic symmetry, she promoted her sport to girls abroad. She eventually revolutionized contemporary swimwear, though she faced criticism and even arrest for wearing her swimsuit, viewed as too risqué for American tastes. Text and art blend in their celebration of this spirited athlete. Typography varies to enhance emphasis: “Annette Kellerman loved to make waves [this last in swoopy script],” and dramatic quotations pepper the dynamic text. Digitally rendered art depicts Kellerman as a strong but feminine competitor; dark outlines display her graceful arms outstretched to greet her audience. Fotheringham’s bold, spiraling patterns resemble crashing water; both fiery and cool colors pay homage to this vibrant woman and her sport. (author’s, source notes) (Picture book/biography. 5-9)
Mochizuki chronicles the famed and iconic actor’s early life for young readers. Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco, while his father was touring with the Cantonese Opera Company. He grew up in Hong Kong, restless and argumentative, but loving to read and dance. He studied martial arts, including the hard lessons of yielding and suppleness. The title, a quote from Lee, recognizes how water cannot be grabbed, shattered or hurt, but it can wear down anything. His study of martial arts led to a boxing championship, which led to more fights, so at 18, his parents sent him to San Francisco. The illustrations are dramatic and effective: Lee uses encaustic over acrylic on paper, and scratches the images in the wax. The results are rich sepia-toned images with great depth; Lee looks rather nerdy in his early years, which will no doubt lend appeal. The narrative language is somewhat stilted, but clear. A brief page of facts continues the story through stardom and early death. (Picture book/biography. 7-12)
This first introduction for children to renowned dancer and choreographer José Limón pairs equally soaring text and visuals. Born “kicking like a roped steer,” young Limón moved with his family from Mexico to California during the Mexican Revolution, made his way to New York during the ‘20s, and after searching for an artistic vocation, found his life’s work in the modern art dance of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, creating “dances sweet as birdsong—TRILLIA-WEET! / Hot as the desert sun—¡Sí! ¡Sí! / Sad as broken dreams—O, soñador.” Focusing mainly on Limón’s childhood, Colón takes him from cradle to curtain call in a series of portraits that captures his strength and grace perfectly. Reich’s narrative neatly draws together both his search for a medium of artistic expression that was right for him (he was talented in music and visual arts, too), and the influence of early incidents, sights and even sounds on his mature style. She closes with a triple “BRAVO!” that readers will certainly echo, plus an extended biographical note and a select list of resources in several media. An inspiring tribute to a major figure in the arts, featuring some of Colón’s most moving, powerful work yet. (Picture book/biography. 7-9)
The syncopated rhythms of bebop form the backbeat to this introduction to Dizzy Gillespie. Winter sets his stage with a firm delineation of young Gillespie’s character: A little boy who was the target of bullies and the victim of an abusive father found an outlet with the trumpet, and turned himself into a clown. The narrative focuses on Gillespie’s own emotional and artistic journey, celebrating his desire to take risks “until the very thing that had gotten him into trouble / so much— / being a clown, breaking all the rules— / had become the thing that made him great, / . . . . ” The text breaks into ecstatic scat while the illustrations move from representational art to abstract depictions of the jagged sounds of jazz. Qualls’s acrylic-and-collage images employ a muted palette of pinks and blues and beiges, and compositions vary from scenes of daily life to poster-like montages, effectively establishing Gillespie as larger than life. The narrative culminates in a priceless image of Dizzy “shov[ing] the angel Gabriel out of the way / and show[ing] him how to play / Bebop.” “OOP BOP SH’BAM!” (author’s note) (Picture book/biography. 5-10)
Focusing on Fred and Adele’s childhood and acts, Orgill chronicles the siblings’ hard work as child dancers on the vaudeville and small-time music-hall circuits. Interesting details—such as the break taken so that the younger Fred could catch up with Adele’s physical development—are delivered in engrossing, if occasionally inelegant prose. (“The children went to school. For the first time, Fred sat at a desk in a classroom smelling of chalk.”) The narrative concludes by touching on Fred’s success as a solo artist and film star, as his and Adele’s paths diverge after 30 years as a duo. Jorisch’s digitally enhanced, mixed-media illustrations feature delicately inked line and a color palette evoking vintage costumery—a lovely approach for spotlighting both the dancers on stage and the architectural details of early-20th-century cityscapes. The handsome layout alternates pages of text facing bordered illustrations, with bordered text blocks against full-bleed double spreads. Pair this with aural and visual treats from the performers’ stellar careers. (selected bibliography of adult titles, selected discography, suggested films, television, website) (Picture book/biography. 6-10)
Renowned illustrator Parker supplies both an affecting text and luminescent watercolors in homage to the virtuosic Tatum. Blending information and imagination, the plainspoken, first-person-present text examines the jazz pianist’s childhood and musical development, progressing from school and church functions to Toledo bars, the club circuit and New York. Parker’s phrases perfectly correlate with his subject: Early details merit short simple declaratives (“This is my father. He’s a mechanic.”), while Tatum’s near-blindness obviates evocations of sounds and smells rather than sights: “I love our church—the way it smells like soap, furniture polish, and flowers; the way footstep sounds echo off the walls.” Ink-lined watercolors revel in as resplendent an interplay of hue and tone as Tatum’s improvisations. Sunny childhood scenes (a charming spot depicts toddler Arthur, playing the family piano on tiptoe) yield to clubs’ sultry blue light. Gorgeous abstract washes dial Tatum’s legendary extemporizations. Fusing Parker’s artistic talent and passion for jazz (he's a musician, too), this sensitively embellished biography is totally on time. (author’s and biographical notes, bibliography of adult sources) (Picture book/biography. 5-10)
Every dog has his day, but Balto’s life is comparable to an early 20th-century movie star’s.
McCarthy’s coverage begins in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Dr. Welch presides at the bedside of a diphtheria-stricken child and follows up with a desperate telegram for the serum needed to prevent an epidemic. While Balto’s legendary role in braving a blizzard to deliver the antitoxin in record time is dramatically portrayed, the author’s primary interest lies in recounting the rest of the Siberian husky’s story. Balto went on to star in a film about the relay race that prefigured the Iditarod. He stayed at the Biltmore in Los Angeles, rubbed elbows with famous actors and posed for a sculpture in New York’s Central Park. When the canine’s fortunes changed, he performed in vaudeville until a Cleveland businessman (and schoolchildren) paid for his transfer to a zoo. Employing the style established in her previous historical investigations (ranging from Charles Atlas to bubble gum), the author selects child-friendly details, explains challenging words in context and re-creates period documents and settings. Her signature acrylic caricatures, identifiable by oversized eyes, convey a sense of attentiveness in keeping with the narrative. The predominance of snow and gray light creates a mood of remote desolation; the palette brightens to warm greens at the conclusion.
An intelligent read-aloud for those not quite ready to tackle the existing independent readers.
(maps, author’s note)
(Picture book/biography. 5-8)
Born on the road to vaudevillian parents, “Buster” Keaton earned his nickname from fellow performer Harry Houdini after falling down several flights of stairs as a young child. That was but the beginning of a notable stage and film career highlighted by often-elaborate stunts that made him one of the first and greatest comic movie stars ever. In a short first-person account illustrated with precisely detailed period scenes, Brighton traces Keaton’s childhood in vaudeville and his introduction to the then-nascent art of filmmaking. Even while depicting a speeding locomotive demolishing a house and other renowned movie moments, her art has a formal air that perfectly echoes her central figure’s distracted, expressionless demeanor. Like Don Brown’s Mack Made Movies (2003), this engaging look back at the silver screen’s silent era captures the heady excitement of making—and watching—the early classics and can’t help but lead a new generation of viewers into rediscovering them. (author’s note, recommended sources and films) (Picture book/biography. 7-10)
PLB 0-7868-2150-7 Addressing readers directly—“You ever heard of the jazz-playin’ man, the man with the cats who could swing with his band?”—the Pinkneys embark on a cool and vibrant tour of Duke Ellington’s musical career, from the pool hall ragtime that “set Duke’s fingers to wiggling,” to his 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, also giving some of the soloists that played with him, and songwriter Billy Strayhorn, a chance to step forward. Translated into color and visual forms, music floats and swirls through the scratchboard scenes, curling out of an antique radio, setting dancers to “cuttin’ the rug” at the elegant Cotton Club and, of course, trailing behind an “A” train. Like Chris Raschka’s solos, Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop (1992) and Mysterious Thelonius (1997), this loving tribute temptingly evokes the sound and spirit of a jazz pioneer. (Picture book/biography. 8-10)
The African-American singer and dancer was idolized in France because of her extraordinary talent as a stage performer and scorned in the United States because of her color.
Winter recounts Baker’s desperately poor childhood in St. Louis, her breakthrough into show business in New York and her move to Paris at the height of the Roaring Twenties in flight from racial prejudice. There, she dazzled audiences with her risqué musical routines and colorfully scanty costumes, especially the famous fake-banana skirt. Winter, a prolific author of picture-book biographies, uses rhyming couplets and verbal riffs, accentuated by lively typeface, for a highly energetic telling. “It’s the Shake, / the Shimmy, / and the Mess Around! / No one sleeps / when she’s in town!” Priceman, a Caldecott Honor recipient, uses her trademark swirling lines and bright colors in inks and gouache to show off Baker’s fantastic moves at almost cinematic speed. Not in the text but in the author’s note is information about Baker during World War II, when she worked for the French Resistance. That grateful country gave her medals and buried her with honors. More recently, Diana Ross and Beyoncé have copied her moves.
In any consideration of noteworthy lives, Baker stands tall and sparkles as a determined, brave and singular woman of color.
(Picture book/biography. 5-10)
Born into extreme poverty in Mao’s China, the author was able, through happenstance, determination and yes, talent, to achieve an amazing career as a ballet dancer in the West. He previously told his story in Mao’s Last Dancer (2003), written for adults, and here retells it for young children. Plucked out of his classroom at age 11, he was taken to the Beijing Dance Academy where he steadfastly practiced and took inspiration from his teacher’s stories. Some years later, the head of the Houston Ballet selected him to dance for his company, and fame and fortune followed. Li does not refer to his defection, only to his joy at reuniting with his parents in the United States as “my heart soared with happiness and I danced the dance of my life.” Spudvilas’s artwork, executed in Chinese ink, watercolor and oil paints, perfectly conveys his close-knit family, his loneliness at school and the triumph and joy of performing ballet on stage. It’s all about a young man far from home keeping stories close to his heart. (author’s note) (Picture book/biography. 6-10)
Zishe, a poor Polish Jew and a blacksmith’s son, displayed unusual strength from the time he was three years old. Able to lift heavy weights, bend steel bars and break metal chains, Zishe was soon recruited by a variety of circuses to perform throughout Europe and later the United States as the Strongman. A highlight of his career occurred in 1923 in New York City, when he was challenged as the Iron King to haul ten men in a wagon down Fifth Avenue by a single leather strap held in his teeth. Zishe, a true figure of circus history, born Siegmund Breitbart in Lodz, Poland, in 1883, had a gentle, caring side as well. He sought out the Jewish community in each town he performed in and played his cello for the hospitalized. Soft, earth-toned crayon drawings of a Samson-like figure energize this real-life superman story told, appropriately, with a bit of a big-top flair and a healthy sense of ethnic pride. (author’s note) (Picture book/biography. 4-6)
Winston, a boy in Trinidad, wishes that he could play in a band and win free rotis, the delicious island specialty prepared by the Roti King and presented to the best performers at Carnival.
In the weeks before Carnival, the people of the Caribbean island are busy sewing costumes, and bands are busy rehearsing with their gourds, bamboo sticks, bottles-and-spoons and drums. Winston hears the sounds that his mango pit makes when he chucks it into a junkyard. Inspired, he tries out different cans and tins, listening carefully to their different notes. More experimentation follows, and soon, he is performing for his neighbors. Friends join him to form a band made up of “pots and pans, tins and cans in a rainbow of colors.” The sounds are winningly irresistible, and Winston and his fellow musicians soon enjoy their “folded pancakes filled with chicken and secret herbs and spices.” Greenwood’s story is based on the childhood of Winston Simon, the 20th-century musician credited with the invention of the steel drum. The text is filled with a cacophony of musical words that are fun and challenging to read aloud. Lessac’s gouache paintings pulsate with sun-drenched island colors and often resemble a folk-art quilt.
A joy to read. Play calypso music and celebrate! (author’s note, glossary and pronunciation guide, author’s sources) (Picture book/biography. 3-8)
A biography in poems and pictures of the prima ballerina assoluta of Cuba, who thrilled audiences for decades with her extraordinary technique and beautiful interpretations of Giselle and other classics.
Alonso danced flamenco as a child, but because “ballet dancing / tastes better / than chocolate ice cream,” she chose it as her lifelong passion. Loss of peripheral vision early in her career and, years later, near total blindness never deterred her. After wooing audiences in New York City and across America, she returned to Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro funded her Ballet National de Cuba and remained steadfastly and controversially loyal to him and his government. America closed its doors to her until a triumphant return to New York in 1975 in Swan Lake. Bernier-Grand writes in short, free-verse vignettes that beautifully capture each step in Alonso’s personal life and career. Particularly touching is the poem "Dancing Fingers," which describes Alonso dancing Giselle with her fingers as she lies in bed with bandaged eyes after surgery. Colón’s signature scratchboard illustrations in warm tones of blue, green and gold capture the colors of Cuba, the ethereal stage settings of Alonso’s greatest triumphs and her elegance and grandeur.
She has been a ballerina, a teacher, a Cuban and a role model for those with handicaps. Truly a noteworthy life, poignantly rendered here.
(Picture books/biography. 8-14)
Audiences thrilled to his mesmerizing performances, in which he spoke through his expressive body without uttering a single word.
Marceau was the world’s most popular and beloved mime. Born in France, he grew up watching and imitating Charlie Chaplin, star of silent films. World War II intruded and turned the Jewish teen into a war hero. At war’s end, he created Bip, his alter ego, who with makeup and costume “walks against the wind, but there is no wind.” Schubert’s spare text is both poetic and dramatic. DuBois’s oil paintings are brilliantly executed and saturated, with textured nuances. Images of Marceau fly across the page, delighting the eye, while close-ups highlight his extraordinary facial expressions. Ordinary paper morphs into stage settings as Marceau dances against white or black backgrounds. One double-page spread depicts a costumed fish with sinuously expressive hands and feet. Another presents seven views of Marceau in movement, updating a series of views of Marceau as a child. The pages set during World War II, in contrast, are a somber palette. Don’t turn the pages too quickly; rather stop and feel the joie de vivre with which the master filled people of all ages all over the world.
An exceptional life; a stunning achievement.
(afterword, source notes, further reading)
(Picture book biography. 4-10)