I learn so much from reading non-fiction picture books, and of course I’m sure kids do too! They give insight into historical figures and events, into the way people have solved problems and overcome incredible odds to follow a dream or to fight for justice, into the way dreamers and doers are formed.
With a new school year having started, I couldn’t help but think about a list of some recent favorites— standouts and truly terrific true stories. Here goes!
Terrific. Incredible. All the adjectives for this biography of Basquiat. “Art is the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak. It is how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.”
Congo Square was the only place enslaved (and free) Africans were allowed to meet together in New Orleans in the 1800s, a place where they played music, danced, and shared news. It embodied the hope of freedom and both the succinct, powerful prose and evocative illustrations truly capture that.
This one is inspired by the true story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga who dreamed of drumming in Cuba despite gender restrictions and eventually had an all girls band with her sisters and became a famous musician. The dreamiest text and illustrations.
This is a fairly comprehensive biography of JFK given the short format and young audience. His childhood, his political rise, and his delay and then eventual speech and action on civil rights. It begins and ends with inspiration for young people, the readers of the book “to speak up, to act, to move the world forward—to make history.”
A story everyone should know about Vivien Thomas, a research assistant who developed a procedure to give children open heart surgery in the 1940s, but who was not credited because he was African American. This book recognizes his struggles and celebrates his contribution, as we should.
A biography of the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose life was like a cloth lullaby, woven together with the threads of her childhood, her mother, their family tapestry business, Parisian fabrics, memory, and stitching itself.
An amazing biography of a woman who from a young age was a creative whiz at figuring out how things work and solving problems. When she grew up, she used her skills to transform computer programming and also coin the term “computer bug.”
You know how I like book crafts, right? Well, since now I have a book(!), I thought it would be fun to have a craft for it. So I enlisted my friend, the very talented teacher and illustrator, Kait Walsh, to create a Zinnia and the Bees inspired craft.
Since my middle grade novel’s main character, Zinnia, is a knitter and yarn bomber, Kait opted for pom poms. They’re a super simple yarn craft that don’t take a lot of time or materials to make.
You can make one pom pom. You can make a bunch of pom poms. Or you can make pom poms with others, like say a group of kids, and then yarn bomb something together (no knitting skills required). Pom pom tree! Pom pom chair! Pom pom bulletin board! Pom poms are fun.
Here’s how to make a pom pom with just yarn, scissors, and some cardboard, in Kait’s wonderful hand drawn tutorial:
Kait generously invited me to visit the Makers Mess summer art camp to make pom poms and yarn bomb a tree with the mini makers there! It was loads of fun! (We had permission from the park.)
Here’s a photo of the finished pom pom yarn bomb!
First we made pom poms.
The kids showed me how it’s done.
Then we set off to the park.
And a few of us talked about the book while having lunch.
We made more pom poms.
We yarn bombed!
Big thanks to Kait for the instructions and wonderful craft idea (as well as Chloe, the other art camp teacher)! And for spearheading the yarn bomb! It was such a special time. (Some of these images were taken by her as well.)
Kait Walsh is a Kindergarten teacher turned full-time artist. You can find her creating illustrations in her Silver Lake studio, teaching kid art classes at Makers Mess, or letting loose at her local dance studio. Follow her daily creations and discoveries on Instagram and feel free to contact her if you want to make something together or just say hi. @sealedwithakait
p.s. I’m coming to Green Bean Books in Portland August 13th and we’ll be making pom poms at the event!
I’m so happy to share the picture book life of Kyo Maclear today since she’s one of my very favorite writers. Her one-of-a-kind work has a simultaneously intellectual and daydreamy quality. In my view, she embraces the unexpected—whether that be taking inspiration from historical figures to taking risks—in the best way and never underestimates young readers. In a word, she’s brilliant.
“‘My picture books start with text and image. I weave an ‘art script’ into my text manuscripts because my stories are visually driven, but these art notes are always open for interpretation by the illustrator,’ Maclear explains. ‘The word-image dynamic is so enmeshed in my books and often so amplified by the metaphoric intuition and intelligence of the illustrator, I find it hard to separate one aspect (or intelligence) from the other. By the end, the collaboration is pretty seamless.'” (From the CBC)
Kyo Maclear was born in London and was raised, and now lives, in Toronto. She’s studied fine art and art history and cultural studies and, I believe, is working on a PhD.
“Kyo now resides in Toronto, where she shares a home with two children, a cat, a musician and a lot of books. In addition to writing, she likes to listen to music, watch old movies, do yoga, make art and play around in her bright, open kitchen… As well as writing for children, Kyo is a novelist and a visual-arts writer.”
“‘When I visit schools, I meet a lot of kids who are first-generation immigrants and I see myself in them,’ Maclear says. ‘Many of these students have super-strong linguistic skills (often serving as interpreters for their families, as I did for my mother). Yet, if asked, many of these verbally dexterous, multilingual kids would not imagine themselves as future writers.
‘I think it would be a great public service to explore how children’s linguistic hesitance (both in reading and writing) is tied to experiences of migration, social marginalization, and a dearth of role models. There are children with amazing verbal/narrative imaginations who are simply not finding their way to the language-based arts. And I believe that’s a loss for our literary cultures.'” (From the CBC.)
“Her first children’s book, Spork, a delightful tale of a mixed-identity kitchen utensil, was inspired by the birth of her first child, and Maclear’s own dual British-Japanese heritage.” (Link to feature/quote here.)
Two friends (one of whom is named after Julia Child) whip up a feast filled with sweetness, wonder, and imagination to remind busy, worried adults of what they’re missing. A couple of years ago, Lyndsay from Coco Cake Land made the chocolate almond cupcakes from the book for this blog! Check it out!
This super clever book includes a bird who watches humans a la birdwatching and who notices a change in the land where it lives. A story of coming together over a common observance and care for the world. The wordless spread is especially arresting.
“Based on a true story, this tale follows a daring, Houdini-esque octopus as he performs his greatest escape act yet.”
“In April 2016, The New York Times published an article about an octopus named Inky who escaped from the National Aquarium of New Zealand through a drainpipe and into the sea. In this charming fictionalized account, Inky, worn out from his exciting life in the ocean, has retired to the aquarium. There he quietly plays cards, makes faces at the visitors, and regales his tankmate Blotchy with tales of his past adventures. Then Blotchy dares Inky to make one more great escape: out of their tank. Will Inky succeed?”
Here’s the colorful, dynamic cover! (I especially like the block print quality of the title and sea surroundings and the energy that seems to emanate to and from Inky.)
In honor of the cover reveal, Casey and Sebastià did a little Q & A about the design of the octopus characters:
“Sebastià, how did you come up with the design for the characters of Inky and Blotchy?”
Sebastià: The first sketches show a more naturalized version of Inky and Blotchy, with the head back like it is in a true octopus. I knew this wouldn’t be the final version because the characters were really fun and lovely and, bit by bit, the curves softened, the eyes grew and moved up the head, and the head gained importance in relation to the tentacles. All these changes were made with the intent of getting a more expressive face because this was a main point in Casey’s text – full of expressive nuances in the characters. Really it was a surprise for me to discover how expressive an octopus can be.
“Casey, what was your first reaction when you saw the artwork for Inky’s Great Escape?”
Casey: Total and utter delight! When I work on characters, I think more about the voice – how they think and talk so I really had no preconceived notions about how Blotchy and Inky would look. And I’m so glad I didn’t because what Sebastià came up with was better than anything I could have imagined. First of all, I loved the colours – everything was so bright and vibrant. But Inky and Blotchy are my favourite part because I think Sebastià captured them perfectly. The different facial expressions and body language are all spot on and totally in sync with the text. He brought them to life in the best way possible.
Casey is giving away one copy of Inky’s Great Escape! Since it’s not out yet, this will be a pre-order, shipping in November. Something to look forward to!