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This week, my son and I read several picture book biographies that have one common characteristic: they’re about dreamers. Dreamers who could have had their dreams squashed because they were ahead of their time. Or because their ideas were a little out there. Or because no one could understand their work. Or because they broke the rules. But they honored their vision and persevered.
Dizzy, Jonah Winter’s beautifully written biography of Dizzy Gillespie, paints Gillespie as a rule-breaker and prankster who often irritated the people he worked with but created brilliant music, probably in part because he was so willing to do things his own way. Winter does not shy away from addressing the pain and hardship of Gillespie’s upbringing–growing up poor with an abusive father, teased and bullied by others, known more for getting into fights himself than anything else. Indeed,Gillespie channeled his pain and anger into his music. Sean Qualls’s illustrations are dark and moody early in the story and become brighter as Gillespie discovers music and develops as a musician. There are many wonderful writing craft moments in this text, as Winter’s sentences and word choice capture the spirit of jazz.
Barb Rosenstock’s picture book biography, The Noisy Paint Box, tells the fascinating story of Vasily Kandinsky, an abstract painter whose synesthesia certainly influenced the way he developed as an artist. (Kandinsky heard music when he saw colors and saw colors when he heard music.) Rosenstock emphasizes that Kandinsky’s parents and teachers wanted him to do things the “proper” way, but Kandinsky decided to follow his own path. I have a soft spot in my heart for Mary Grandpre’s art (Harry Potter illustrator!), and I liked the magical quality of her work for this particular story. Four of Kandinsky’s incredibly vivid and energetic paintings are reproduced (though they’re very tiny!) at the end of the book, and there is back matter that tells more about him.
Roslyn Schanzer’s How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning does focus substantially on Franklin’s scientific investigations of lightning and the public service he did by inventing the lightning rod, but readers will learn much more about Franklin than just the lightning story. Franklin’s entire life story is covered here, and Schanzer is especially good at capturing Franklin’s intense curiosity and wonder about the world. Franklin was clearly a man who didn’t mind experimenting and figuring things out and took failures and mistakes as a personal challenge to try again.
Tanya Lee Stone is one of my favorite nonfiction writers for children, and Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon, tells such an engaging story of the woman who worked tirelessly throughout her life for women’s rights. Elizabeth comes across as such a lively and interesting person, and Stone does an excellent job explaining what was at stake in Cady Stanton’s choices. As I’ve said before, my very favorite nonfiction picture books send me off to the library to read more, and even though I loathe and despise biographies for grown-ups (my dissertation was on feminist biographies of 18th-century women writers, and I finished that project never wanting to read another conventional biography: I can count on one hand the number of biographies I have read in the ten years since I defended), I think I want to read a biography of Cady Stanton. Especially if there is a short one!
I think my son and I equally enjoyed all of these books, though I could tell he liked the Ben Franklin and Elizabeth Cady Stanton books best. He lives in a very black and white world where people are either good or bad. He struggles to understand that it can be a good thing, a necessary thing, for people to do things differently than everybody else, to follow their own paths, to defy conventions. I love finding books about complicated, complex people living in complicated, complex moral universes. As, you know, most of us are and do.