I’ve got great nonfiction picture books on the mind this week, and here are but a small handful of them. Let’s get right to it.
First up, because it’s one of the most beautifully designed picture books I’ve seen this year, is Mara Rockliff’s Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. This book is so many things—an exploration of the scientific method, an introduction to the Placebo Effect, a peek into 18th-century France, and a glimpse into the personalities of the legendary Benjamin Franklin and Viennese doctor Franz Mesmer, the man we can thank for the word mesmerized. The book tells the story of Franklin’s visit to France during the American Revolution in an effort to convince King Louis the Sixteenth and Queen Marie Antoinette to join America’s war efforts. All of Paris was “abuzz about somebody new. Someone remarkable—thrilling—and definitely strange. Someone called Dr. Mesmer.” Dr. Mesmer would essentially hypnotize his patients, telling them they were cured of what ailed them. Franklin was suspicious and showed everyone that Dr. Mesmer’s “cures” were so much hot air. As a result, Dr. Mesmer may have picked up his wand and fled, but as Rockliff writes, he discovered the Placebo Effect: “Belief can be a powerful medicine!”
Rockliff writes with humor and flair. (“Dr. Mesmer was as different from Ben Franklin as a fancy layered torte was from a homemade apple pie.”) The illustrator captures well the time period, using playful fonts and elegant, detailed illustrations. Spreads get busy, but the readers’ eyes never tire; Bruno knows precisely when to use white space judiciously and when to slow things down in the name of letting the story’s inherent drama shine. The spread introducing Dr. Mesmer is one of best you’ll see this year.
Award-winning poet and author Carole Boston Weatherford knows a thing or two about picture book biographies, and her latest is the story of Gordon Parks, Hollywood’s first black director. But in Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, with the sleek and reverent illustrations of Jamey Christoph, Weatherford focuses on Parks’ life before this, when he worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the 1940s. At the age of 25 and “all but broke,” he purchased a used camera. “That $7.50 is the best money he will ever spend,” Weatherford writes. Largely self-taught, he took photos that captured not only America’s great disparities in social class, but also its institutional racism. The book gives particular focus to Parks’ work photographing Ella Watson, a cleaning lady and the subject of this iconic photo. There were “enough photos of white men carved in marble and granite,” Weatherford writes. Instead, Parks, who became Life magazine’s first black photographer, gave America a glimpse of those who struggled.
One day in 2007, when Brooklyn College lecturer Matthew Burgess led a “literary walk” of Greenwich Village, he was invited inside 4 Patchin Place, the former home of poet E. E. Cummings. The experience was an unforgettable one for him and led to the creation of his new biography, Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings, on shelves now with the playful and appealing multimedia artwork of Kris Di Giacomo. The book opens with three spreads of Cummings as an adult but then flashes back to his boyhood years, followed by his rise to fame as one of this country’s most famous poets. This biography, which the Kirkus review describes as an “eminently friendly introduction to both the poet and his spirit” (the first page, in fact, is a very real invitation to the reader to come meet the poet), does two things particularly well. First, it includes a handful of Cummings’ poems. Readers even get a peek into some of Cummings’ childhood poems. It also captures well how revolutionary Cummings’ work was at the time, while at the same time noting critics’ responses to his work. “e. e. liked to break the rules of rhythm and rhyme to make words,” Burgess writes. “Some people criticized him for painting with words. Others said his poems were TOO STRANGE, too small.” It’s an engaging, even inspiring biography, fitting for both fans of Cummings’ work, as well as those new to the man and his creations.
Last but not least, I’d be greatly remiss if I didn’t point you in the direction of Christoph Niemann’s The Potato King, originally published in Germany two years ago. Let me make one thing clear, though: While the other books mentioned here today are nonfiction, The Potato King is technically fiction. But I must mention it, because it’s a true delight. It’s a story based on the legend that King Fritz was among the first people in Europe to sing the praises of the potato, first brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. However, he had to revert to a bit of reverse psychology (I’ll leave that for you to discover if you read a copy yourself), as the myth goes, in order to convince his subjects to eat them. Well, I call it a myth and Niemann says it’s possibly a myth, but as he notes at the book’s close, “to this day, people honor King Fritz by putting potatoes on his grave.” The book’s final page is “A Brief History of the Potato,” which provides more details on the legend. Niemann’s understated humor is one of the book’s greatest strengths (look for the spread where the king is whopped upside the head by a flying potato), and he created the illustrations using…wait for it…potato stamps. This deceptively simple and terrifically entertaining book is unlike any other book you’ve seen this year.
All of these books would be such excellent additions to school and public libraries, in particular, as they bring history (or, in one case, a captivating legend) to life for readers in such vivid ways. Happy reading!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.