There were a lot of Caldecott honors this year – six, with the medal winner additional. I’m still waiting on hold for one of them, but even so, I have too many books to talk about at once. Here are three honor books that all happen to be picture book biographies, a type of book which teachers love but which public librarians sometimes complain are a hard sell.
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock. Illustrated by Mary Grandpre. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
This is a picture book of the Russian painter Kandinsky. It starts with childhood and the delights of his paint box rescuing him from boredom. It follows the course of his life in a fairly typical fashion, but breaks out of the ordinary in describing how Kandinsky sees colors in sounds and develops the first abstract paintings. Mary Grandpre’s illustrations are really spectacular, showing both engaging pictures of the man himself and swirls of colors as sounds translate themselves to image. This was a huge hit. My daughter wanted it over and over again, her class enjoyed it, and the art teacher read it to all the K/1 classes before having them paint music as Kandinsky does in the book.
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jennifer Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers, 2014
Again, this is a biography, showing how a shy and lonely boy raised between countries
found solace in words and lists, becoming known as a scientist before his children encouraged him to publish his thesaurus. The illustrations are fabulous, as you would expect, with lists of words about different things related to the text woven into them. It’s too much to take in on one reading – this is one you’d want to go back to over and over again. The text is on the longer side, so that it took a couple of nights to get through it with my daughter. She enjoyed it, but wasn’t so interested in hearing all the lists of words when she just wanted a little story before sleep. It’s still a great book – just one meant for an early elementary audience rather than a preschool/Kindergarten one.
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales. Roaring Brook Press, 2014.
Skewing completely to the other end of the spectrum with the quantity of words, this book about Frida Kahlo has only a short, short phrase on each page, repeated in English and Spanish in different typefaces. Scenes from some of Kahlo’s paintings are recreated in miniature, with a detailed tiny doll and props on vivid backgrounds that I took to be digital. There’s no real story here, though, so kids who don’t know about Kahlo already won’t really learn much from the book. The words are along the lines of “I see – I feel – I dream”, which felt to me more inspirational for adults than meaningful to kids. There is an afterword that explained more about her, but it’s far too dense for the kids who’d have the attention span called for in the main text. My daughter told me to take this book back to the library right away after I read it to her. It’s really a shame – I love both the illustrations and Frida Kahlo – but it was a complete flop at my house.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Do you have any favorite picture book biographies?