Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

The Faith of Elijah Cummings pays tribute to a giant

The Faith of Eljah Cummings: The North Star of Equal Justice, by Carole Boston Weatherford/Illustrated by Laura Freeman, (Jan. 2022, Random House Studio), $17.99, ISBN: 9780593306505

Ages 6-10

Congressman and civil rights advocate Elijah Cummings left an extraordinary legacy when he passed in 2019. Carole Boston Weatherford, whose numerous awards include a Newbery Medal and two NAACP Image Awards, along with NAACP Image Award winning illustrator Laura Freeman, to create a picture book biography that makes this giant of a man accessible to all ages. Beginning with the Congressman’s impoverished childhood and moving through his civil rights journey, focus on inner-city youth, and government work, we also see how Elijah Cummings’s faith and family was his anchor. Photorealistic illustrations are bold and eye-catching, and quotes from Elijah Cummings inspire readers as Carole Boston Weatherford’s narration concentrates on his humanity, choosing moments in his life like being tutored by librarians when his teachers said he would never be able to read or write well; his mother’s preaching, which inspired him to care for others in need, and the civil rights lawyer from his youth that inspired him to defend kids who needed defending. As a “Washington power broker”, he continued living in his Baltimore inner-city neighborhood and hung a campaign sign in his window so others could find him. Back matter includes an excerpt from the statement from the Congressional Black Caucus made upon the Congressman’s passing; a timeline of Elijah Cummings’s life; a bibliography, and the quote sources. Endpapers show Elijah Cummings, in profile, set against the American flag.

An incredible book for an incredible figure, and a must-add to your picture book biographies. The Faith of Elijah Cummings: The North Star of Equal Justice has starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.

Carole Boston Weatherford’s author webpage is a treasure trove of information, with resources and links to media related to her books. See more of Laura Freeman’s illustration work at her website. Find a biography, bibliography, and committee assignments for Elijah Cummings at the House of Representative’s website; visit Congress’s website to learn more about the legislation sponsored or co-sponsored by him, along with his remarks in the Congressional Record.

Posted in picture books

The Girl Who Could Fix Anything – Great STEM Bio!

The Girl Who Could Fix Anything: Beatrice Shilling, World War II Engineer, by Mara Rockliff/Illustrated by Daniel Duncan, (Sept. 2021, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781536212525

Ages 5-9

Beatrice Shilling, a British World War II engineer, gets her time in the spotlight in this picture book biography. As a child, she “wasn’t quite like other children”, preferring tools and tinkering to usual childhood pursuits. After working for another female engineer as an apprentice, she went to school for engineering and eventually landed a position at the Royal Aircraft Establishment… to write handbooks about plane engines, not to work on them. Eventually, she did get to work on engines, and when World War II broke out, Beatrice was put in charge of a team that traveled to airfields and demonstrated winterizing planes to fighter pilots. She went on, with her team, to figure out an engine problem that fighter planes encountered during a dive, saving countless lives. Another great story about a female figure in STEM, The Girl Who Could Fix Anything tells Beatrice Shilling’s story; Daniel Duncan adds humorous reactions to Beatrice’s being “othered” as a woman in a traditionally “man’s field” and brings thrilling air fight moments to life to add some excitement. Beatrice is drawn as a determined, thoughtful woman, while men around her don’t always quite seem to know what to make of her. Endpapers show a variety of airplane parts, blueprint style. An author’s note and additional resources make up the back matter.


Posted in picture books

The Clothesline Code: A true Civil War spy story!

The Clothesline Code: The Story of Civil War Spies Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker, by Janet Halfmann/lllustrated by Trisha Mason, (Feb. 2021, Brandylane Publishers), $12.95, ISBN: 978-1-951565-58-9

Ages 7-10

Author Janet Halfmann gives us another story about two historic figures that haven’t gotten their full due. The Clothesline Code is about escaped slaves-turned-Union spies, Lucy Ann Walker and her husband, Dabney Walker. At age 52, Dabney was spying for the Union and learned the army’s flag codes, used to communicate across the battlefield. His wife was a laundress in the Union camp, but Dabney approached her with a different idea: how could they adapt the flag codes to help them spy on the Confederate army? The two devised a method using laundry on a clothesline, and Lucy went across lines to blend in with the other washerwomen at a nearby Confederate camp. She went on to create different laundry codes for each Confederate unit, and help keep General Hooker and his troops informed of the enemy’s plans.

Janet Halfmann has a gift for finding little-discussed people in history, primarily enslaved or escaped slaves who contributed to the fight for freedom and education of other Black families. She invests the reader with her storytelling, full of suspense and nail-biting moments: there is a lot on the line here, and Ms. Halfmann makes sure readers understand that. An author’s note at the end includes what little information exists on the Walker family after the War, and some selected references for more research.

Trisha Mason’s colorful artwork throughout brings the Walker family to life for readers. The photorealistic artwork is expressive, with warm closeness between Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker and emotional moments when they are apart.

Solid additions to your picture book biographies and Black History collections. Don’t miss.

Janet Halfmann’s Clothesline Code page on her author website includes links to discussion questions and interviews.

Posted in Non-Fiction, picture books

Simone Biles’ lyrical picture book biography: Flying High

Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles, by Michelle Meadows/Illustrated by Ebony Glenn, (Dec. 2020, Henry Holt & Co), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250205667

Ages 4-7

A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of newstime has been spent on Simone Biles, whose withdrawal from several Olympic events this summer has reopened important conversations about mental health. Simone Biles has started a worldwide conversation on performance pressure and anxiety, and, more importantly, the ability to speak up and own that anxiety.

Michelle Meadows and Ebony Glenn’s late 2020 picture book biography, Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles, touches on some of those moments within the greater story of the champion’s life so far. Told in rhyming verse, the story begins with Ms. Biles and her siblings being adopted by family members, and the moment a rainy day decided her future as a gymnast. It details the rise to her fame, but it also looks at moments like a disappointing defeat when she tried out for the national team: “Crushed by defeat, / she loses her spark. / What will it take / to rise from the dark?” The story doesn’t shy away from her sacrifices, like choosing homeschool over conventional, in-person learning, to make more time for gymnastics, and it returns, time and again, to her incredible drive to succeed. Written before Simone Biles’s Olympics withdrawal, Michelle Meadows had the understanding and the foresight to see and include moments like this in Biles’s story. Ebony Glenn’s digital artwork gives us expressive, photorealistic illustrations of Simone Biles, her family, and her teammates. She beautifully recreates the gymnast’s incredible skill, with Biles twisting, flipping, and landing with grace and style. Her facial expressions communicate volumes, whether it’s her focus, disappointment, worry, or sheer joy. Back matter elaborates on Simone Biles’s early childhood, includes fast facts about the gymnast, and sources for more reading.

Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Shelf Awareness. Visit Simone Biles’s webpage for more information about the champion, and links to her social media. Her page on the US Gymnastics website lists career highlights, and her page on the Team USA website offers more about her Olympics experience.

Posted in Non-Fiction, picture books

Niki Nakayama’s blends cultures in her chef story

Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites, by Jamie Michalak & Debbi Michiko Florence/Illustrated by Yuko Jones, (Sept. 2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $18.99, ISBN: 9780374313876

Ages 4-8

Niki Nakayama, the master chef behind the California restaurant n/Naka, shares her story in this lovely picture book biography from children’s book authors Jamie Michalak, Debbi Michiko Florence, and illustrator Yuko Jones. Beginning with Ms. Nakayama’s childhood in California, the story gives us 13 “bites”: 13 defining moments in the chef’s life, to parallel her 13 course menus at n/naka. The Japanese-American chef developed a love of global cuisine as a child; her mother blended Japanese and American foods and flavors together to make meals like meatloaf with soy sauce, or teriyaki turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Ms. Nakayama began creating her own recipes as a child, eventually traveling the world to sample cuisines from different cultures. When she returned to the United States, she apprenticed as a sushi chef, ultimately opening her own restaurant, n/naka, where she now creates 13-course tasting “storytelling” menus. Back matter includes a timeline of Niki Nakayama’s life, an explanation of terms used in the story, and the chef’s own childhood wonton pizza recipe. The story flows from moment to moment in the chef’s life, touching on frustrations like having her family dote on her brother, and having her family agree to finance her first restaurant, but agree to give up her dream if it was not successful. Spreads show Nakayama and her family gathering at their own table, and families gathering to eat at n/naka, illustrating the power of community that eating together brings. Spreads show colorful foods from all over the world sprawl across pages, and diners speaking different languages as they enjoy a creative master chef’s food.

You can visit n/naka’s website and see Chef Nakayama’s profile; you can see a promo for her Chef’s Table episode on Netflix below.



Posted in picture books

Women to Know: Sarah Gerhardt, Surfer

Sarah and the Big Wave, by Bonnie Tsui/Illustrated by Sophie Diao, (May 2021, Henry Holt & Co), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250239488

Ages 4-8

Sarah Gerhardt, one of the first female big-wave surfers and the first female to surf Mavericks, an infamous big-wave surf break in California, has her moment in this picture book biography. Sarah’s story begins in Hawaii, where she began surfing small waves as a young girl, working her way up to larger waves and finessing her technique. The story touches on the sexism she encountered, and the joy of finding a group of friends to surf with. Working her way from Hawaii to California, Sarah is ready for the next challenge: The Mavericks, also called “Mount Everest meets Niagara Falls”. An inspiring story for young women about meeting challenges, readers will enjoy meeting Sarah Gerhardt. Talk about mindful practices she uses, like breathing and counting, to help readers understand the need to put oneself in a calm frame of mind when up against hurdles in life. Back matter includes a timeline in the history of women and surfing, going back to the 17th century and famed Hawaiian princess Kaneamuna! Illustrations are simply beautiful, with deep blues and greens inviting readers to embrace the ocean, and action shots of Sarah Gerhardt are dynamic.

There are some good resources on Sarah Gerhardt for more discussion. Keep some of these articles handy for anyone interested in learning more: “Sarah Gerhardt on Big-Wave Surfing in a Man’s World” (Outside magazine, 2018);  “Women in the Wild: Sarah Gerhardt” (The Outdoor Project, 2019); “Titans of Mavericks: Sarah Gerhardt” (Titans of Mavericks), and “Sarah Gerhardt: Girl Meets Mavericks (Visit California, 2021).

Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman gets a book and a giveaway for Women’s History Month!

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, by Laurie Wallmark/Illustrated by Brooke Smart, (March 2021, Abrams), $18.99, ISBN: 9781419739637

Ages 7-9

This picture book biography on code breaker Elizebeth Friedman is a great way to kick off Women’s History Month!  Beginning with her early years as a Shakespeare-loving student and working for an eccentric millionaire, she meets fellow code aficionado and scientist, William Friedman. The two marry, and their expertise in codes and ciphers led to their groundbreaking work in cryptology during World War I. Friedman traveled two worlds, raising her family away from the city and answering the government’s call for help, whether it was to break smuggler’s codes during Prohibition or ferreting out Nazi spies and Japanese spies during World War II. The FBI took credit for the work she and her team did, and she was sworn to secrecy. Her secrets were declassified 35 years after her death in 2015. Laurie Wallmark, a STEM/STEAM biographer for women in STEM, has written several books I’ve brought to my Girls Who Code sessions, including Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (2017) and Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (2015). She has a great way of factual storytelling that show each of her heroines breaking barriers while juggling the weight of societal expectations. Ms. Wallmark does Elizebeth Friedman a great justice and brings her story to a new generation of girls.

Brooke Smart’s watercolor and gouache paintings sprinkle Friedman quotes throughout and have humorous moments, including a page where a line of coded language wraps itself around an angry group of Nazis as Friedman gazes off sagely on the companion page; one spread has Friedman leading a team of young men through ticker tapes, curling all over the page, likely pointing out how to break codes. She combines the realistic with the imaginative, encouraging readers to let their minds go where coding takes them. Back matter includes an explanation on codes and ciphers, cryptography, and a crack the code exercise, along with a bibliography and timeline of Friedman’s life. An excellent biography on a ’til-now virtually unknown figure in history.

Check out the Code Breaker, Spy Hunter book page on author Laurie Wallmark’s webpage where you’ll find a trailer, cool activity sheets, and more!


Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark has written picture-book biographies of women in STEM fields ranging from computer science to mathematics, astronomy to code breaking. Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, been chosen as Junior Library Guild Selections, and received awards such as Outstanding Science Trade Book, Cook Prize Honor, and Parents’; Choice Gold Medal. She is a former software engineer and computer science professor. She lives in Ringoes, New Jersey. You can find her at

On Twitter: @lauriewallmark

Facebook: @lauriewallmarkauthor

Instagram: @lauriewallmark


Brooke Smart loves telling stories through her illustrations, especially stories about brave women from history. She has always loved to read, and growing up she could be found nightly falling asleep with a book on her chest. Illustrating books as a professional artist is a lifelong dream come true. She is living the busy, tired, happy, wonderful dream in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, their three kids, and their naughty cat named Sunshine. Learn more about her at

Instagram: @bookesmartillustration



One lucky winner will receive a copy of Code Breaker, Spy Hunter courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers (U.S. addresses). Enter this Rafflecopter giveaway!

Posted in Non-Fiction, picture books

Award winner: All the Way to the Top!

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for American with Disabilities Changed Everything, by Annette Bay Pimentel/Illustrated by Nabi H. Ali, (March 2020, Sourcebooks Explore), $17.99, ISBN: 9781492688976

Ages 4-8

A Schneider Family Book Award Honoree, All the Way to the Top is activist Jennifer Keelan’s story. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, Jennifer used a wheelchair to get around, but found that “buses, museums, libraries, and even schools that were accessible to my able-bodied peers were not accessible to me because there were no wheelchair ramps”. Becoming an activist at age 6, Jennifer found her voice when her family brought her to strategy meetings and protests for the right to access and to push for the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA). Most of All the Way to the Top takes place in Jennifer’s early childhood, leading up to her history-making moment in 1990, when, at the age of 9, she took part in the Capitol Crawl, where protestors left their wheelchairs and mobility aids aside and crawled up the Capitol steps to demonstrate the need for accessible architecture. All the Way to the Top is a powerful story about a major moment in history, and illustrates how important it is that children are invited to discussions about policies that affect them. Back matter includes information about activism, the access, the life before and after the ADA, timeline for both the Disability Rights Movement and Jennifer Keelan-Chaffin’s life, and a bibliography. Nabi Ali’s illustrations show expressive, diverse groups of people assembling to discuss and advocate for themselves and others. Jennifer and her younger sister, who attended protests with her, stand out in crowd scenes, with the sisters rendered in full color and the crowd in various monochromatic shades.

Britannica Kids has an entry on the ADA for students, and readers can learn more about Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins at her website. Publisher Sourcebooks has a free, downloadable Educator’s Guide available, and the book detail page has an interview with author Annette Bay Pimentel and more.

Posted in Middle Grade, Non-fiction, picture books

Two picture book biographies: Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Steinem

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry), by Gary Golio/Illustrated by Ed Young, (March 2019, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763697617

Ages 8-12

This picture book bio on silent screen giant Charlie Chaplin starts with Chaplin’s early life in London and his life in a poorhouse; covers his early performing years in London and his discovery by American filmmaker Mack Sennett, and Chaplin’s success in creating his classic Little Tramp. Using verse with occasional moments of rhyme, this is a fantastic way to bring Charlie Chaplin’s movies and life to an audience that, as Kirkus notes, “grow ever more distant”. I remember watching Chaplin’s movies on TV when I was growing up, and later on, as a cinema student in college; I loved his humor, and I loved his social commentary that came across loud and clear. Smile touches on these concepts and Chaplin’s talent to make viewers laugh and cry, sometimes at the time.

Ed Young’s collage and ink artwork is incredible. The collage endpapers are populated with silhouette cutouts; spreads are created using torn paper, fabrics, newsprint, and murky colors. Little Tramp silhouettes show up on almost every spread. The story ends with a photo of Chaplin as Little Tramp, and the beginning and end of the book appear as a silent film title cards.

Back matter includes quotes from Chaplin’s writing, an afterword from the author, facts about Charlie Chaplin, and a list of resources. The author includes a suggested Chaplin viewing list that I’d love to run here at my library. I’ll have to see if I can generate some interest. In the meantime, here’s a clip from The Kid (1921).

Smile has starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Gary Golio is an award-winning author of children’s nonfiction; Ed Young is a Caldecott-winning artist.

Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote, and Changed the World, by Jessica M. Rinker/Illustrated by Daria Peoples-Riley, (March 2019, Bloomsbury), $17.99, ISBN: 9781681196763

Ages 8-12

Feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem’s story is told in narrative text and mixed media art, beginning with her early years as she traveling with her parents and learned in the back of their car. She goes to college, shakes off the “when are you going to get married?” expectations, opting to travel to India. Inspired by the the 1963 March on Washington, she decided to join fight for equality, eventually co-founding Ms. magazine in 1971.

The text is a bit dense, making it a better choice for middle grade readers; short sentences summarize every few spreads to reinforce Steinem’s actions throughout her life: “Gloria watched. She learned. And helped”; “Gloria thought. She questioned. And learned”. The mixed media artwork shows Steinem’s intersectionality, standing alongside people of color at marches and protests. There’s a nice tribute to Steinem’s influence on later generations of young women, with a diverse group holding signs including “Black Lives Matter”, “Where are you going to college?”, and “Resist! Persist!” An author’s note and illustrator’s note each touch on Steinem’s personal influence, and additional back matter includes a timeline of important events in U.S. women’s history, and a bibliography of further resources. The endpapers are renderings of Ms. magazine covers.

A nice addition for Women’s History Month collections and research.

Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, Preschool Reads

Pocket Bios: itty bitty picture book bios!

Somehow, I missed Pocket Bios until now. Introduced earlier this year, Pocket Bios are a series of pocket-sized picture book biographies. They’re filled with cute, colorful illustrations; more cartoon than realistic, and the text is fairly simple, giving big-picture facts to serve as a quick introduction to young readers. The first found of Pocket Bios drew from entertainment, sports, science, and civil rights figures, including Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Curie, and Gandhi; this next group of books includes The Buddha, Pocahontas, Marie Antoinette, and Vincent Van Gogh.

Buddha, by Al Berenger, (March 2019, Roaring Brook Press), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250168887

Ages 4-7

This picture book bio of Siddhartha, who would become the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, touches on key moments in his life: his birth, youth, and marriage; his leaving the palace on his journey to find happiness, his new life as he sought and achieved enlightenment; his teaching and traveling, last days, and legacy. A timeline provides a more linear, dated glimpse at the events covered in the book, and a map shows readers important locations in Buddha’s life. People to Know offers profiles of important people in his life, including his mother and the Dalai Lama, and an illustrated “Did You Know” section offers some quick, additional facts on his life.

The art is rounded and bright, soft and cute, with some beautiful moments, particularly when Siddhartha fully realizes enlightenment, and as he teaches a group of students. A picture of an aging Buddha is gentle, tinged with an understanding that he will be moving on. There are some truly lovely moments to be found here.



Marie Antoinette, by Al Berenger, (March 2019, Roaring Brook Press), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250168825

Ages 4-7

Each spread in Marie Antoinette’s Pocket Bio covers a major period in her life; the factual information on the left hand side provides the dates. We first meet her as a young princess in Vienna; move along to her 1770 wedding to Louis XVI, and then to his coronation. Then, we move into the Marie Antoinette period that everyone’s familiar with: the lavish lifestyle, depicted by a huge dinner party. As the text reminds readers, Marie Antoinette was not content in her royal duties, leading her to seek refuge at a village, built just for her, her children, and her friends. Meanwhile, revolution was in the works, and in 1789, the French Revolution began, illustrated with a French mob brandishing swords and pitchforks, outside the burning Bastille. As Marie, Louis, and their children tried to escape Paris in 1791, they were arrested and taken back to Paris, where they eventually met their ends at the guillotine – Louis, in 1793, Marie, soon after. The pictures are dramatic, loaded with shadows and flame during the Revolution; pastoral and soothing during the happier times in Marie’s life. There is a timeline, map and key of Europe in 1793, with key areas emphasized. People to Know include Marquis de Lafayette and Yolande de Polastron, one of Marie Antoinette’s close friends. Did You Know? fact to handsell the book: Marie Antoinette has some hairstyles that were four feet tall!


Vincent van Gogh, by Al Berenger, (March 2019, Roaring Brook Press), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250168863

Ages 4-7

Artist Vincent Van Gogh’s biography also includes dates for the key represented moments in his life. We begin with his childhood in the Netherlands, and touches on the close relationship between van Gogh and his brother, Theo; we move onto an apprenticeship under his uncle, where he traveled to London and Paris, developing a love for art. He was a pastor in a coal-mining town from 1877-1880, and spoke out against the dangerous conditions in the mines, which influenced his painting, The Potato Eaters. From there, van Gogh embraced his love of art and began painting in 1880, after moving to Antwerp. From there, he moved to Paris, to be with Theo, but he tired of city life and relocated to Arles, where he could live and work in the countryside. The book touches on van Gogh’s struggle with mental illness and the work he created while in the hospital and under his doctor’s care. Finally, the narrative addresses his suspicious death – previously thought to be a suicide, and his posthumous fame. The timeline includes all of the moments written about in the book, and the map and key emphasize six key location in van Gogh’s life. People to know include his brother, Theo, and artist Paul Gaugin. Key Did You Know? takeaway: his most famous work, Starry Night, was painted during his time at a psychiatric hospital and he thought it was his greatest failure.


Pocahontas, by Al Berenger, (March 2019, Roaring Brook Press), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250168863

Ages 4-7

Pocahontas’ biography, also dated, starts with her years growing up in the Powhatan tribe, located where Virginia is now. The English arrived in 1607 and established the Jamestown colony; the illustration shows a young Pocahontas watching a ship dock at a newly built port. The brutal winter forced the settlers to send John Smith to ask the Powhatans for help, which led to his imprisonment. Here, the narrative diverges from the history books I grew up with (thank goodness) and points out that John Smith most likely made up the story of Pocahontas throwing herself in front of him to save him from certain death; she then becomes a friend of sorts to the Jamestown settlers, visiting them and working to keep peace between the Powhatans and the settlers. John Smith’s 1609 injury required him to head back to England – and Pochontas was told that he died on the voyage home. At this point in history, relations between the Powhatan tribe and the settlers fell apart, and they warred with one another. Pocahontas was taken prisoner and brought up English – her father refused to trade her for English prisoners – eventually marrying settler John Rolfe, converting to Christianity, and taking the English name, Rebecca. The wedding helped ease relations between the Native Americans and the settlers, and Pocahontas – now a mother of two sons – was invited to visit England. She became ill and died while traveling, and is buried in England.

There are some beautiful moments in the artwork here – a ship sailing into the golden sunlight, Pocahontas as a child, playing with other children, with a waterfall streaming in the background. There’s a timeline and illustrated map; people to know include Pocahontas’s father – not Powhatan, but Wahunsunacock, and King James I. A key Did You Know? fact reminds readers that John Smith was not the most reliable narrator.

The verdict? The Pocket Bios are a good start for younger readers, but aren’t the first resource you should seek. It’s a good series to start planting an interest in history and key people in history. Readers who enjoy Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World series of biographies will likely enjoy these.