Some Non-Fiction Picture Book Titles:
From the Splendid to the So-So (and Back Again)

h1 November 8th, 2006 by jules

{I must quickly note — though unrelated to literature and related only to our site’s format — that we are finally ad-free! Woo hoo! Thanks, Blaine!} . . .

Get me. I recently admitted that I don’t read enough non-fiction, but here is a post about a couple more noteworthy non-fiction picture book titles I’ve experienced. Three in one week. Don’t pass out on me. (And I think I’ll throw in a few more in the way of poetry — technically, non-fiction, too, though I usually don’t have a problem getting my poetry).

perfect-timing.gifThis title you see on the left here is not only a good book, but the author, Patsi B. Trollinger, grew up in Tennessee (I was even told she’s a native of Sullivan County, not terribly far from where Eisha and I both used to live, in gorgeous East Tennessee). Trollinger’s Perfect Timing: How Isaac Murphy Became One of the World’s Greatest Jockeys — published in September of this year — became a reality after her interest was piqued when she saw a brief, six-line story about him in a local newspaper (she now lives in Kentucky), according to her web site.

When we meet Murphy, it’s 1873. He’s a boy, age twelve, and living in Lexington — short but strong and carrying loads of laundry for his mother’s laundry business. He’s free, though his grandparents were slaves; however, since Kentucky had few schools for students who were black, he worked daily with his mother. Immediately welcoming us into the book’s theme of Murphy’s spot-on timing (in more ways than one), Trollinger writes that he made a delivery to the home of Mr. Owings — the owner of a racehorse stable, needing to hire new jockeys — at just the right time.

Trollinger takes us through Murphy’s life with an assured hand, writing in a clear and easily accessible style for the 7 to 10 year olds at which the book is aimed (I hate the age-range-game, but that is according to some product details seen at the book’s corner of the world at Murphy’s dedication to racing was impressive, and here Trollinger shines light on a little-known African-American sports figure who tied the world’s record (for running a mile in less than one hundred seconds) and who won the American Derby four times and the Latonia Derby five times, “earning some of the nation’s highest prize money.” And students — particularly the sports-loving ones — will appreciate the brief glimpse into his inner character: “He had rules for himself that were firm: no cheating, no fighting, no swearing. And he rode every race, large or small, as if it was the most important one of his life.” And in her Author’s Note we learn that the perfect timing of our title refers to not only his winning pace on the track; we learn that if he had been born twenty years earlier, “he would have raced as a slave rider. Every penny of his prize money would have belonged to his master.” Trollinger takes the reader to the very end; Murphy died way too young, at age 35, and is the only jockey buried on the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park. “He still holds the record for the highest percentage of racing wins ever (44 percent of all his races).” So, why don’t we hear more about him? Kudos to Trollinger for a winning picture book biography subject whose story is well-told — and needs to be.

The illustrations are exquisite. Jerome Lagarrigue — winner of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for Deborah Wiles’ Freedom Summer, published in 2000 — brings Murphy’s world to life with his acrylic paintings and an impressionistic, rather misty look, blurring the edges of things (which, “like memories or historical stories, only capture part of the picture,” as the Booklist review put it well). And, as far as I’m concerned, Fuse #8 can take note for her HMOCL Series. Go to his site and click on “Portfolios” and then “Photos.” Immense talent and the intense-yet-relaxed, brooding artist look. I say move over Joann Sfar, reigning Hot Man.

This book is a must-add to any school or public library collection. Here’s to Trollinger and Lagarrigue and to looking forward to what they bring us next . . .


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

aneggisquiet.gifI’ve never been hugely impressed by Sylvia Long‘s work, and I’m sure I’m in the minority. That whole 1997 Hush Little Baby re-write, citing that the old folk lullaby is too materialistic, just turned me off. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but it doesn’t matter anymore, ’cause I’ve finally just seen An Egg is Quiet illustrated by Ms. Long and written by Dianna Aston (who has written a handful of books, including 2003’s Loony Little, illustrated by the fabulous Kelly Murphy). What a great picture book this is — it’s charming, it’s beautifully illustrated, and it’s informative and interesting at the same time. And I mean to tell you that every inch of it is — from the cover to the endpapers and back images and everything in between. This is an introduction to eggs, and Aston and Long do it justice with text and illustrations that children and adults will pore over. Many double page spreads are designed to look like the notebook of a nature-lover who has paused to note the beauty witnessed. Long’s illustrations, rendered in ink and watercolor, are lush and elegant, and she’s — without question — won me over. And, impressively, Aston takes us on a journey that spans the mystery and magnificence of a wide variety of creatures in the animal kingdom — from the tiny eggs of hummingbirds to the massive eggs of ostriches (and then promptly get out your copy of Steve Jenkins’ wonderful Actual Size and find that mama ostrich and her egg for some more fun facts). And she doesn’t miss an angle — she examines their aesthetics, their textures, their varying sizes, their shapes, their colors, and even their smarts. You don’t want to pass this one up for many reasons — even the handlettering alone (courtesy of the illustrator and Anne Robin) is reason enough to pick this up. And give yourself a good chunk of time when experiencing it.

(And for another equally passionate take on the book, read here. If any other bloggers reading have reviewed, please share. I’d love to read more thoughts on this beautemous book).


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

dayatschool.gifA quick mention of two more non-fiction titles published this year — in the realm of children’s poetry. What a Day It Was at School! by Jack Prelutsky, our current and first-ever Children’s Poet Laureate, is a light-hearted and comical look at school for those wee, wee kindergarteners. The silliness and liveliness of the text is a spot-on match for the silly and lively temperaments of this age. Doug Cushman’s full-color cartoon illustrations, rendered in acrylics, will amuse as well. Not a stand-out title in children’s poetry for the year, in my softly-spoken opinion, but — with poems about the school cafeteria, show-and-tell, library time, author visits, stress-inducing spelling tests, and, um, making certain scatalogical noises in the middle of class (a noise that rhymes with the poem’s final line, “{i}n a way, my brief eruption/Was a little work of art” — and the word itself is unspoken in the poem’s words, therefore making it a nice, little exercise in inferencing for these young minds) — kindergarteners and others in such primary grades will, likely, squeal with glee, making this a good choice for class-time read-aloud.

friendly-four.gifI regret to say that Eloise Greenfield’s The Friendly Four disappointed. While it serves as a nice homage to the imagination of children (the book centering around four children trying to make the most of an otherwise dull summer), I have a hard time imagining it wow’ing the elementary-aged children at which it is aimed. I have yet to road-test it, however, so if anyone else has, please prove me wrong. (There’s nary a computer or cell phone or any such modern convenience in sight; now, this is not so much a complaint — this is coming from someone who doesn’t use a cell phone and despises the contemporary and unmannerly atrocity called Call Waiting. However, I wonder if The Child of Today will be compelled to keep reading such a title after initially perusing its pages. I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll find much joy in its simplicity). Written in multiple voices (making it a good choice for student read-alouds), Greenfield writes about Goodsummer, a time and place created by our four African-American protagonists who use their broad imaginations to make their summer exciting and productive. Greenfield touches upon some heavy themes, mostly in the form of Rae, sent to live with Dorene due to her mother’s (mystery) illness, but most poems are light fare — playgrounds, innocuous childfood fighting, parental punishments, creating their own town, and more. Greenfield’s free verse doesn’t disappoint so much as Jan Spivey Gilchrist’s watercolor illustrations do; they are rather ungainly and stiff, and . . . well, they just seem sloppy — and not intentionally so (not like, say, the intentionally unpolished and spontaneous drawings of Neal Layton, as mentioned recently).

in-the-land-of-words.gifI have to say I much prefer the duo’s In the Land of Words: New and Selected Poems from 2003. This title’s a National Council of Teachers of English Excellence in Poetry for Children Award winner, and it’s easy to see why. A collection of twenty-one poems — illustrated by Gilchrist with sewn fabric collage (felt and threads and fabrics and much more), bringing much texture and life to the poems — it’s a “tribute to the written word,” as Greenfield writes, with such poems as “In the Land of Words,” “Books,” and “Poem.” And check out this excerpt from the little joy of a poem entitled “Family” (originally published in 1979 in Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir):

Saturday Sunday mornings
Daddy making pancakes
big as the plate Daddy
making fat hamburgers
leftover stuffed with rice
green peas enough for
everybody . . . . Lincoln Park
evenings Mama other mothers
bench-talk children playing . . . .
Downtown Wilbur Gerald Eloise
wait in the car have fun get
mad have fun get mad . . . . Vedie
little sister turning somersaults
we laugh. Vera baby sister
sweet baby laughing we laugh . . . .

Greenfield uses lovely imagery and strong metaphors to invite young children to participate in her love of language. It’s a strong title, a must-add to a school or public library’s children’s poetry collection.

4 comments to “Some Non-Fiction Picture Book Titles:
From the Splendid to the So-So (and Back Again)”

  1. wow, dude, you have been busy.

    1. YAY to being ad-free! mad props to the webmaster!

    2. excellent reviews, all. thanks esp. for the Perfect Timing review – hadn’t seen that one at all, but i’ll definitely look for it. and duuuude, for serious, i checked out that illustrator’s photos… whoa.

  2. I agrree with you about the illustrations in “The Friendly Four”; some of them are awkward. From the back, as in the great cover, the kids look fine, but something is a little off when Gilchrist does faces. Illustration quirks aside, I thought this book was really sweet and would make a good classroom read-aloud.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful Nov. 8 comments about my book, Perfect Timing. So why am I just now posting a repy? Because my seven impossible things before Christmas involved helping twin daughters finish their applications, essays, and preliminary aid applications for six colleges each. (Can we spell angst?) Today, I resolved to doublecheck all the e-mails that accumulated, and I discovered a nice message with a bookmark for your blog. Researching and writing Perfect Timing took more than a decade of my life, and ultimately, I was blessed to be paired up with Jerome’s art. Now I’m finishing a mid-grade novel loaded with deaf characters, and I’m hot on the trail of a champion bicycle racer. Surely this won’t take a decade! Thanks. Have fun reading … before breakfast or after.

  4. Patsi, thanks for visiting and commenting! Good luck with your new books. I am a sign language interpreter as well as librarian, so I’ll have a special interest in your new mid-grade novel.

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