Pocket Bio: Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Al Berenger)

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Hello, friends! Our books today are from the Pocket Bio series by Al Berenger, specifically three notable figures in civil rights: Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each book gives the reader a brief history of the subject’s early life, their influences, their actions, and their legacies. Mandela’s focuses on his imprisonment and triumphant election as president of South Africa after his release – the first election he was able to vote in – and touches briefly on his Nobel win and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Parks’s includes her famous bus ride, and King’s looks at his involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma march, and his “I Have A Dream” speech.

As early-learner primers for these historical figures, these aren’t terrible. King’s is the most informative, making note of his early influences (Jim Crow south, his father’s religious work, his study of Ghandi, etc.) and even his courtship with Coretta Scott. His murder is mentioned (though not depicted), and the book ends on a note of surprising honesty, noting that racism is still a problem that needs to be fought, but King’s work made great strides and encourages us to make more. Mandela’s book is serviceable, delving into the racist policies of Apartheid and mentioning the violent, often deadly protests that took place, but glossing over the reformation years pretty heavily. Most disappointing is Parks’s book, which relies almost solely on her arrest; the bus boycott that follows is made to seem entirely the idea of MLK (Parks volunteered to be the face of the boycott at great personal risk and sacrifice), and her work as a secretary and investigator with the NCAAP gets zero mention. Likewise, the bobble-headed illustrations are just okay – engaging for younger readers but occasionally at odds with the tone of the subject matter (a scene depicting a meeting of Mandela’s Spear of the Nation militant group is laughable). The length is fine, the backmatter – maps, timelines, etc – is a nice addition, and JJ enjoyed them for the most part. Somewhat uneven, and definitely only a jumping-off point, but worth a browse. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: Copies of these books were provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Brave Ballerina: The Story Of Janet Collins (Michelle Meadows)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Brave Ballerina: The Story Of Janet Collins, written by Michelle Meadows and illustrated by Ebony Glenn, the true story of the remarkable dancer who became the Metropolitan Opera’s first black prima ballerina in 1951.

Born in 1917 in New Orleans, Janet Collins found a passion for dance at an early age. Her tradesmen parents paid for her ballet lessons by making costumes for recitals, and Janet worked hard to improve her craft each day. Yet despite her obvious talent, each ballet academy turned her away at the door, refusing to accept a black student. Continuing to train, mastering new styles and learning from any instructor who would teach her, Janet was finally accepted to a ballet company – only to be told that she would need to paint her skin white to match the other dancers. Janet refused, continuing to work and train and perform where she could until finally, a company saw her skill and talent. Earning her place as prima ballerina at the Met in 1951, Janet Collins was able to step out on stage as herself and do what she was born to – dance.

Powerful. I admit to never having heard Collins’ story before, and it’s a testament to Meadows’s rhyming text and Glenn’s artwork that, by the time the story was through, the reader feels as though they have joined Collins in her journey. The passion for dance bursts from her face and form in each illustration of her in motion; the frustration and shame of the prejudice leveled against her is palpable; the glorious final spread of her beaming onstage before a cheering audience is triumphant. The text is succinct enough to keep the story moving at a brisk pace, yet never glosses over or rushes – each beat feels important and necessary. A beautiful story of perseverance, determination, and pride, and we loved it. Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different: True Tales of Amazing Boys Who Changed the World without Killing Dragons (Ben Brooks)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different: True Tales of Amazing Boys Who Changed the World without Killing Dragons, written by Ben Brooks and illustrated by Quinton Winter.

A short-biography anthology, this collection aims to recognize men and boys throughout history, both famed and more obscure, who made an impact on history in non-“traditionally masculine” ways. Included are familiar names such as Louis Braille, Frederick Douglass, and Frank Ocean, as well lesser-known figures such as Rick Van Beek, the triathlete who competes as a team with his disabled daughter, and Charles Fourier, creator of the term “feminism”. Each entry highlights how the subject used their intelligence, courage, empathy, creativity, and dedication to contribute to society.

As a concept, I ADORE this. While there is no shortage of male biographies for kids, Brooks is careful to focus on figures or accomplishments that are overlooked for not being traditionally masculine: Writer John Green is celebrated for his books, but also for the community of young activists he and his work inspired; Surfer Eddie Aikau is lauded for his athletic ability, but more so his dedication to lifeguard and rescue work. There are occasional stumbles: often the language reads vague in the pursuit of making the stories kid-friendly (I was greatly puzzled by the inclusion of actor Jessie Eisenberg, until research revealed that the book’s language choice of “worried” and “nervous” were euphemisms for Eisenberg’s OCD and other severe anxiety disorders). I also wished there were an introduction and/or some backmatter that could have made the collection feel more cohesive. Otherwise, the illustrations are simply STUNNING, and capture each subject with passion and awe. And while this is likely not for a single sitting, this largely inspiring and moving compilation is worth the commitment, especially if it spreads that message that greatness comes by many means, not just to the big and strong. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review).

Marie Curie (Demi)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Marie Curie by Demi, a comprehensive look at the life and scientific contributions of the brilliant Madame Curie.

Born in Poland to a family of scientists and educators, Marie was fascinated by science at a young age. Despite an often-difficult childhood, she studied and worked to help fund not only her own college education in France, but her sister’s as well. It was at school at the Sorbonne that she would meet Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist who immediately recognized Marie’s brilliance. The two fell in love, married, had two children, and worked tirelessly on their research into radioactive elements. Marie would go on to win two Nobel Prizes (one with Pierre and one on her own), becoming the first person to do so. And while her work would ultimately lead to her demise, her contributions to science and medicine would save lives and change the world.

Listen, it’s pretty hard to mess up biography of Marie Curie, one of the greatest scientists of all time, and this one does okay. The descriptions of Marie’s early life – her academic excellence from toddler-age, her work-study arrangement with her sister, her early days as a researcher – this was all fascinating. But around the midpoint, the story begins to meander to the point that it became confusing, especially for younger readers. Tangents like a section covering the Radium Girls or the very technical aspects of separating pitchblende seemed tacked on. The folk-art inspired illustrations are quite nice, placing simple characters against brightly-patterned backgrounds, but a scene that accompanies Pierre Curie’s death disturbingly includes his corpse. The length is okay for slightly older bookworms, but JJ was clearly bored by the end. A biography that begins with promise but ultimately falls apart, and simply not the best we’ve seen. Not for us.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Never Too Young!: 50 Unstoppable Kids Who Made A Difference (Aileen Weintraub)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Never Too Young!: 50 Unstoppable Kids Who Made A Difference, written by Aileen Weintraub and illustrated by Laura Horton, a compendium of young change-makers who made major accomplishments in their fields before the age of 18.

Including a short forward, the book introduces the reader to 50 figures throughout history that made notable contributions to their fields while still in their formative years. Each biography features a full-page vignette illustration of the subject, often paired with a quotation by them. Opposite is a three-to-five paragraph biography noting where the youngster hailed from, what field they made their mark in and how, and what they went on to do in their adult years (where applicable). There is a healthy mix of historical and modern examples from all over the world, ranging from notable names such as Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, and Louis Braille, to less-familiar luminaries and role models like Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Katie Stagliano, and Thandiwe Chama.

Absolutely awesome. These biography compendiums for kids have become quite popular recently, and it’s wonderful to see the format used to inspire while it educates. With the aim of not only teaching children about history, culture, world events, and the arts, the text also serves to encourage children that there is no age limit on getting involved with the world around them. The biographies are bite-sized enough so that even JJ comfortably enjoyed a few; an older child could easily finish the book in a few sittings. The illustrations all have a genial quality that makes each figure feel like a new friend. This is a great book for encouraging children to make a difference in the world around them, and know that their voices and talents matter, and we just adored it. Absolutely Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)