Good picture book biographies start here
(and o mercy! you just have to see these illustrations!)

h1 January 30th, 2008 by jules

Illustration by Sean Qualls from Before John Was a Jazz Giant, used with permission from the illustratorAs a student in a graduate library school program, I was often reminded that Black History Month is of course important but that children’s librarians need to remember to avoid excessive tokenism. In other words, don’t pull all the books with black protagonists out for merely one month. To be sure, there has been controversy over such things, designating one month in the year dedicated to the history of one race, which can be reduced for some people to a perfunctory ritual with little meaning (this same tokenism can apply to poetry and the month of April as well as all the other months designated with themes).

Having said that, though, we are coming upon Black History Month, and there are some fabulous picture book biographies from last year and this year which feature prominent African-Americans. And the fact remains that — even if a librarian does a fine job of presenting a wide variety of so-called multicultural books throughout the entire school year and fully integrates African-American history into her regular curriculum, no matter the month — he or she is still expected to pull for teachers titles with African-American protagonists or ones created by African-American authors (as well as create that “Black History Month” book display). So here then are a small handful of outstanding recent titles, most of them new, that will work well for that cart o’ books for teachers and for that book display (which quickly will be raided if you’ve got the right books).

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First, you’d be wise to treat yourself to this first biography, Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum (Schwartz & Wade; January 2008), which already has garnered several starred reviews (Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist). I am so in love with this book, particularly the illustrations, that I can’t possibly gush about it enough. This is the first book which acclaimed Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Robert Andrew Parker (himself a jazz musician) has written as well as illustrated, and it’s well worth your time and your students’. With an immediately engaging first-person, present tense narrative, we meet the young Art Tatum, who grew up to be a legendary jazz pianist and whom Count Basie called the eighth wonder of the world, in his home in Toledo where he was born. We also meet his mechanic father, his mother (“She often sings in the church down the street, but she isn’t singing here. She has too much cleaning to do”), and the rest of his family and friends. Though the young Art has “bad eyes” (“day and night, dark and light, don’t really matter to me”), he savors sounds and smells and plays on his mother’s piano as soon as he can reach the keyboard on tiptoe.

After six more spreads depicting Tatum’s warm home life and piano exploration in church, home, and the local Pick-a-Rib café, Parker then takes readers on a brief journey through Art’s professional musical career, beginning with his first performance at a nearby bar, in which Tatum first experiments with “hiding one song inside another” on the keyboard, and his subsequent invitations to play on the radio. Because this book focuses on Art’s feelings for home, we are not given details about his career. Instead, Parker takes a short cut: “Once people start hearing me on the radio, I’m asked to play all over the country. My music takes me farther and farther from home.” And paragraphs like this one, which demonstrates Parker’s talent for direct, uncluttered text:

Bandleaders call me. I tour with musicians through Ohio, to Chicago, Kansas City, and even New York City. I play with Adelaide Hall, Slam Stewart, and Tiny Grimes. I become famous.

But we don’t need any more information than that about Tatum’s musical success, since what Parker has crafted here is a loving tribute to family and the meaning of home, and his goal was clearly not to bring us a detailed, blurb-like account of Tatum’s professional career as a musician. On the final spread, with a stirring image of Tatum at the piano, he is playing but thinking of his home in Toledo, his parents, his sister and brother. “No matter where I am when the room fills with music, I remember all the people who helped me. The people I love.” In an author’s note, Parker explains his fascination with Tatum’s music and his research of his life, stating clearly that he is fascinated by the musician’s early years and took creative license to “fill in the missing pieces” of Tatum’s childhood.

And, though I think this is such a tight first text for Parker, it’s the illustrations that wow. With his loose line — which, as Publishers Weekly points out, gives the illustrations an abstract feel — there is much energy and movement. Parker’s watercolor depictions of Tatum’s music “float{ing} up through the ceiling” are mesmerizing. Again, the final illustration alone is a wonder, could be a study of a master illustrator at work. And, because I begged and pleaded, I got a copy from Random House to share with you all (many thanks to them):

Is anyone else’s breath taken away by this? Lordamercy, it’s just SUBLIME.

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While we’re on the subject of jazz, Henry Holt will release this April Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane from award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Sean Qualls. I know this is months away, but I have an ARC and just have to say that this is a winner in its own right but also can be well-paired with Piano Starts Here. As with Parker’s text, Weatherford doesn’t set out to give us a dry, line-by-line account of one jazz musician’s professional triumphs; this one focuses on the affectionate familial circumstances of John’s childhood. Each spread — illustrated in acrylic collage by Qualls with a dynamic energy and in rich, textured, unabashed hues — begins with an auditory memory of John’s: “Before John was a jazz giant, he heard hambones knocking in Grandma’s pots, Daddy strumming the ukelele, and Mama cranking the photograph,” eventually breathing “every sound he’d ever known into a bold new song.” (Here is that ukelele spread, used with permission from the illustrator. Thanks be to Sean):

Illustration by Sean Qualls from Before John Was a Jazz Giant, used with permission from the illustrator

Illustration by Sean Qualls from Before John Was a Jazz Giant, used with permission from the illustratorHere’s one more illustration — again, used with permission — ’cause I can’t help it (and this post opens with one more illustration from the book). Isn’t Sean Qualls a major talent with a style all his own? (And he illustrates those picture book biographies of jazz greats with originality and verve — if you missed last year’s Dizzy by Jonah Winter, go get it!). Right, where was I? So the book closes with a reverent Author’s Note about Coltrane’s life as well as lists for further reading and “Selected Listening” (nice touch). Both this book and Piano Starts Here are two inviting, accessible titles, making these jazz greats approachable to today’s children.

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Piano Starts Here was not the only picture book biography of a prominent African-American published by Schwartz & Wade this month. They’ve also released Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World by Jonah Winter and with magnificent oil paintings by French illustrator François Roca. This is an excellent introduction to Ali for younger readers. The book opens with “the first black king in the Kingdom of Boxing,” Jack Johnson, followed by Joe Louis and Sonny Liston. However, we’re told, Sonny “existed for only one purpose: to knock people out in the very first round. And God said, IS THAT ALL THERE IS . . . TO A BOXER? And the heavens opened up, and there appeared a great man descending on a cloud, jump-roping in the Kingdom of Boxing. And he was called Cassius Clay.” Yes, it’s larger-than-life and paints Ali as a mythical, almost-biblical god, but it works. Emphasizing the ease with which Ali spoke his mind, Winter takes us to the big fight with Sonny Liston, his name change from Clay to Ali, Ali’s distinctive fighting style, and what he meant to an entire generation of African-Americans: “he was creating a new way for African Americans to be: PROUD, STRONG, and WILLING TO FIGHT.” The book closes with his courtroom battle over the stripping of his title and his fight with George Foreman. Winter’s text is powerful and persuasive, and larger, bolder fonts are put to effective use. Roca’s paintings, always laid out with maximum drama, are beautifully shadowed and sumptuous, capturing well Ali’s magnetism as a public figure.

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In Wind Flyers, written by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Loren Long (published by Simon & Schuster a year ago this month), a young boy tells the story of his great-great uncle, a Tuskegee airman in the all-black pursuit squadron of 1941. With a spare, poetic text, Johnson takes readers on his journey, the pilot fueled by a passion for flying against the wind (“there was magic in the wind,” he tells his great-nephew) and beginning with his five-year-old self leaping off the roof of a chicken coop. In the end, as a “smooth wind flyer
. . . {f}lying high above it all,” he fights in the second world war, “the big war,” and it’s then that we see the pilot as a man, sitting with the child, reliving the fulfillment of his dreams that was flying and remembering the Tuskegee wind flyers as “young and brave. Brave and young, all.” Long’s paintings manage to evoke strong determination and tenderness all in one moment and bring this story of holding tight to one’s dreams to vivid life with his detailed and bright acrylics. (Not technically a biography, I know, but it still fits here).

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Last but not least, it’d be criminal to not mention here Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, published recently by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion. But, blast it! I still haven’t seen a copy (I’m waiting patiently on my local library). For now, you can rely on Besty Bird’s detailed review as well as Kelly Fineman’s. There’s also this impressive web site for the book in which one can look inside and see some of Kadir’s art work. I ask you: Does it hurt to have as much talent as Nelson does? It must. He’s some kind of genius, I tell ya. And I wonder what it’s like for other picture book creators to be hearing fervent, impassioned Caldecott buzz for a title in, uh, January.

Can’t wait to see this one.

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BONUS: Here’s Art Tatum, circa 1954. How can one get one’s fingers to do that?

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8 comments to “Good picture book biographies start here
(and o mercy! you just have to see these illustrations!)

  1. Jules,

    Thanks for these great reviews. I agree with everything you said about not limiting certain books to just one month of the year!

    I absolutely love the illustrations by Sean Qualls. I think I’d buy that book just for the pictures. I’m also a fan of Loren Long’s art. Angela Johnson was one of the presenters at the Children Literature Institute at Simmons College last summer. She was a wonderful and exuberant speaker.


  2. I so want to grab Piano Starts here that I might have to head to a bookstore today, even though it wasn’t on my list of things to do.

    And the John Coltrane one looks good – it would probably pair well with Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls: http://kellyrfineman.livejournal.com/166598.html


  3. Thanks, you all. If you get it, Kelly, let me know what you think. Parker’s illustrations are simply amazing.

    And, yes, both Qualls and Long are so talented. Shoot, this is a line-up of some pretty impressive illustrators.


  4. I think I need to read that Art Tatum book. Thanks, Jules.


  5. What a treat to stumble on this site. I have written a few pb bios (and illustrated samples).

    I love this art! It is sumptuous!

    And my husband adores and plays Tatum!

    Thanks for the joy! B


  6. [...] My favorite illustration from the whole flippin’ year: Robert Andrew Parker’s depiction of Art Tatum in Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum (Schwartz & Wade; January, 2008). Feature: January 30, 2008. [...]


  7. [...] her husband, illustrator Sean Qualls (who recently received the Coretta Scott King Award Honor for Before John Was A Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford and who will soon be joining me for a breakfast interview); their son, [...]


  8. [...] had never edited a book, and now she has edited several, like Piano Starts Here by Robert Andrew Parker and A Ball for Daisy by Chris [...]


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