What was Amelia Earhart like as a kid? Did the painter Vasya Kadinsky always see the world differently? I don’t read enough biographies, and I felt that again after reading these biographies written for a young audience. Biographies daringly dip into the minds of the greats, reminding you it’s far too easy to stay within the confines of your own life, to think like those around you, to succumb to external pressures, such as family, friends, society, about what is right, proper and of value.
There’s a fine art to turning a great life into something digestible for a child. The art lies in finding the essence, an almost haiku-like writing that condenses, getting only the most salient details on the page. Each of the following biographies rises to that fine art.
By Brad Meltzer; Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
In I am Amelia Earhart, by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, young Amelia’s passion for flying appears early on. When she was seven years old, she built her own roller coaster in the backyard, using two planks of wood placed against the side of a tool shed. The cab was a wooden packing box with roller-skate wheels. She greased the wood with lard and climbed into the cab and “I was flying!” She continued to defy the suffocating and constricting expectations for women by signing up for flight lessons. Interestingly, and perhaps the message of this book, is that she wasn’t very good: she just tried harder than everyone else.
Ages 5-8 | Publisher: Dial | Jan. 14, 2014 | ISBN 978-0803740822
I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing, so I wondered how Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham, authors of A Home for Mr. Emerson, would translate his rich thinking into something for a child. The authors wonderfully convey his life and his views, including many of his memorable aphorisms. In college, he recorded his new thoughts in a journal he called, “The Wide World.” (what a great title!). He built a family and a life around thinking and community. And the Emersons settled into, as he put it, “The lukewarm milky dog days of common village life.” Evenings were spent with neighbors and friends talking about literature, theology, self-reliance and freedom, evenings of grand discussion. He lectured widely, telling his audience to believe in “the integrity of your own mind.” A Home for Mr. Emerson provides so much richness, so many subjects for you and your children to create your own evenings of grand discussion.
Ages 8-12 | Publisher: Scholastic Press | Feb. 25, 2014 | ISBN 978-0545350884
By Barb Rosenstock; Illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Step into the world of the abstract painter, Vasily Kandinsky with The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPre. While learning to be a proper Russian boy, Vasya discovered painting. “Every proper Russian boy should appreciate art,” said Auntie,” who gave him the paint set. As he mixed color, he heard sounds. He began to paint the sound of colors. (Ah, another great artist who has synethesia). Yellow “clinked like the highest notes on the keyboard. He brushed a powerful navy rectangle that vibrated deeply like the lowest cello strings.” When he grew up, he became a lawyer and stopped painting. Still, colors sang to him. One evening, at the orchestra, the music painted lines and arches and circles in his mind. He quit his job and began to paint abstractly, which few people understood. It is a story of obsession, of shedding societal constraints and expectations to follow one’s destiny. “I could hear the hiss of the colors as they mingled,” said Kandinsky.
Ages 4-8 | Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers | Feb. 11, 2014 | ISBN 978-0307978486
By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel; Illustrated by Giuliano Ferri
What about an encounter with a great person? How might that change someone’s life? In A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel and illustrated by Giuliano Ferri, a young boy hears Gandhi, the Mahatma, speak at his village. “Gandhi is explaining that the way we will fight the British without hurting them is using salt.” Using salt? The boy is intrigued. Prior to the British, Indians would make their own salt. Now the boy’s mother must buy it from the British. Gandhi tells the crowd he is going to march to the sea, many miles away, and when he gets there, he will make salt on the beach, though the British law forbids it. He will fight the Raj, but only through peaceful actions. The boy and his brother, along with hundreds of thousands of Indians, join Gandhi on his walk. A Taste of Freedom shows the power of one individual to bring about societal change.
Ages 6-9 | Publisher: Walker Childrens |Feb 10, 2014 | ISBN 978-0802794673
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