Tag Archives: biographies

A Picture Book Thanksgiving

In nearly thirteen years of married life, I have cooked exactly one turkey.  Thursday will mark my second attempt. I say attempt because the first was a failure of significant proportions. We went to a local farm on the island we lived on and agreed to pay a pretty price for one of the turkeys trotting about the premises.  Part of the agreement was that my husband and sons would get to come help kill the bird so our children would know that food doesn’t come from a freezer and we support a local economy, etc.  Lofty goals…

The bird was slaughtered; defeathered and sent home with excited young eyeballs proud to call it our own. I had never cooked a turkey before so I just winged it (I’m so punny!)… thinking it would be hard to screw up.  Well, I screwed it up.  Birds that have room to roam are ipso facto leaner birds. The meat needed a little bit of TLC to get that famous “Butterball” taste I was used to.  I didn’t really know what I was doing and we gnawed on tough meat with sacrificial spirits, rather than thankful ones… thinking about how much money we spent on this ‘quality’ ‘local’ meat.  At least the pie was good…

But I digress. We’ve somehow managed to get invited elsewhere or visit family for most of our other Thanksgiving holidays and so I’ve no real experience in developing solid family traditions for this day.  I am asked to please make sure Great-Grandma’s Sweet Potato Casserole gets made but everything else can pretty much come or go any given year.  Perhaps that’s why I’m not particularly excited about Thanksgiving-themed picture books.  I just don’t get really jazzed up about this holiday for some reason.  I have precisely the books I want to have and am not really licking my chops hunting for the newer and better ones that I’m certain exist (google “Thanksgiving picture books” and you’ll get an eyeful if you want).

So, realizing there has been a void in Thanksgiving posts since I started this blog 3 years ago, I’ll share with you what I have and a brief bit about why I have them, just for my die-hard dozen of curious people. But know that this isn’t a comprehensive list of all great books out there for Turkey Day by any stretch of the imagination.  I read these during the week prior to Thursday.

Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving: This gives the story of Squanto obviously and I like having a first person focus for this story. It’s well done and offers a friendly bit of truth regarding Spanish Catholic monks that isn’t too common to see in secular history accounts.

The Thanksgiving Story: Tells the tale. The text is a tad lengthy but the art style is beautiful as to be expected.  This is the “official story” book I go to. This year, I’m reading it over a couple days as part of our school’s morning basket.

Cranberry Thanksgiving: I love Cranberry-ville! This is fun and fresh and not focused on the history at all.  Vintage… happy that Purple House Press brought these back in print.

Mousekins Thanksgiving: I wish Mousekin was back in print; he’s a Charlotte Masoner’s dream! This is a gentle tale, full of natural goodness typical of Mousekin and ends in a satisfying and sweet way that captures the ‘spirit’ of Thanksgiving generosity.

Three Young Pilgrims. For my younger children specifically to get a taste of history with the personal narrative to go with it.  It’s colorful and engaging.

N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims: I bought this when we were studying N.C. Wyeth as an artist.  The story is a faithful rendition of the original history but I really don’t make a point to read from this book so much as to just enjoy the pictures (Though the scene is picturesque and romanticized a bit, it’s still a good piece of Americana to get nostalgic about).

The Thanksgiving Door: Something off the beaten path a bit and full of Thanksgiving “spirit” again.  I like to find tales that get a new angle on this holiday because there’s only so many books you can read about the history before your eyes blur over.

p.s. Regarding seasonal out of print books. If you don’t already know this, they are horrifyingly overpriced when it gets close to that season.  Do not shop for OOP holiday books in the same month that the holiday is celebrated.  I buy my OOP Christmas books no later than October and shake my head as prices skyrocket just weeks later… so you have to think ahead of the game a little bit. 

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A Home for Mr. Emerson

I saw A Home for Mr. Emerson randomly at the library and grabbed it up immediately.  What a find!  I use picture books heavily to teach history/science/pretty-much-anything and after reading this book, I decided to change up my homeschooling plan just a bit this fall to make sure and include Ralph Waldo Emerson as a featured poet—all because of this book.

So many biographies fall flat with cartoony, digital pictures; others have long, dry text that reads like an encyclopedia entry. But this book does what all picture books should aim to do: tell a good story and illustrate it well.  It’s that simple… and that difficult.

I really didn’t know much of anything about Emerson but this book has all the necessary elements to serve as an educational spine and build out from there.  A real story (complete with a beginning, middle, and end—not just a telling of his life), quotes from his writings, fantastic, appealing pictures to delight young and old, and a full page of biographical notes in the back for further research.

 Yet another ‘bonus’ element of the book is the underlying message about how important it is to build the life you dream of, connect with your community and find sanctuary in your home.  I also had no idea that this team of Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham had produced 3 other biographies (Those Rebels, John and Tom, What To Do About Alice?, and The Extraordinary Mark Twain) that I am adding to my check-out list immediately. Knowing how important it is to have the right illustrator for the right text and vice versa, I can say with confidence that this duo is a match made in picture book heaven.  Kerley has written other non-fiction titles and her Walt Whitman book deserves accolades of its own.  Those illustrations are rich and realistic—great for that book. But  there’s something about the chemistry of Kerley/Fotheringham that I personally really love.

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Saint John Bosco: The Friend of Children and Young People

Our “saint of the month” for January is St. John Bosco (feast day: January 31). I’ve grown to have quite an affection for this man who was such an amazing inspiration for youth in his time.  In reading more and more about him, I’ve started to look to him for a lot of our homeschooling philosophy too.   I love quotes like these:

“Without confidence and love, there can be no true education.”

“The teacher who is seen only in the classroom and nowhere else, is a teacher and nothing more; but let him go with his boys to recreation and he becomes a brother.”

“Frequent Communion and daily Mass are the two pillars of education.”

“[I have] always tried to enlighten the mind while ennobling the heart.”

“Do you want to do a good deed? Teach the young!
Do you want to perform a holy act? Teach the young!
Do you want to do a holy thing? Teach the young!
Truly, now and for the future, among holy things, this is the holiest.”

But I digress.  This is my blog; I’m allowed to digress.  Anyway, we picked up a small book at our parish library to read about Don Bosco this month and I was happily surprised at its digestibility.  See, I’m due any day now with my 6th baby (pray for me!!!) and this is currently one or our “low tide” seasons in homeschooling.  Latin lessons are on hold. Formal science is out.  It’s very basic morning basket time, and then individual math work and copywork.  Maybe a cool Loch Ness Monster documentary in the afternoon…  but frankly this is all I have energy for right now.  Real life will hopefully fill in the gaps but for now, we are busy tidying the home, running errands, readying the nest and resting aching joints to get ready for this babe.  You can expect a winter slowdown on this blog too.

So, like I said, I was happy to not have to devote hours and hours to a biography on Don Bosco.  He isn’t exactly the St. Francis of Assisi to the picture book world either so I was happy to find a little, colorful 65 page story about him from Paulist Media.

Saint John Bosco : The friend of children and young people tells the story from his childhood on up to his death and is both enjoyable and thorough in the process.  You could read it in one sitting, but we have chosen to make it a two-day read, stopping halfway about when he enters adulthood.  The pictures are engaging enough and so far it is holding the attention of my 4-11 year olds… quite a span!

Here are some pictures of the inside of the book to give you an idea of what to expect.

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Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre: November Perfect

In the Catholic faith, we are asked, during the month of November, to reflect on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. In the picture book world, I like the idea of using the first part of this month to read darker, haunting or semi-macabre stories (think fairy tales). In having a healthy respect for the supernatural while living as best one can in the state of grace, I really think we have no reason to fear darker themes. And when you treat things in their proper place and have a good understanding of all things ghoulish… kids I think, will too. I mean, my children and I are fascinated by the Martyrs of Otranto for example and on my “money-is-not-a-factor bucket list”, I hope to see their shrine someday, complete with the skulls on display. There is no “creepiness” in death really and ideally, it’s a glorious passage… but I digress.

I was checking to make sure that Anna Harwell Celenza hadn’t produced a book on Mozart (whom we are studying this term) and was reminded with happiness that she had just put out Vivaldi’s Four Seasons this summer… but my eye caught another new title I hadn’t seen before—produced just this August! And that was Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre. We love Celenza’s books in this house (and accompanying CDs) and have purchased four of them now… to supplement our studies of composers.

To be honest, I don’t know anything about the Danse Macabre or much about Camille Saint-Saëns either, but I was intrigued by the cover and read up a bit about the history of that piece in particular.  I learned a lot about the Dance particularly

here. ApparentlySaint-Saëns actually went a-loitering in the catacombs to get inspired for this piece! Anyway, during November, before settling down with the comforting, festive Thanksgiving stories, this would be an excellent book to read and composition to study. I unfortunately, have maxed out both my book budget for the month as well as my request for materials to be purchased at the library right now… so I don’t have a first-hand review of the book to offer yet.  But I’m certain, like all of Celenza’s books, it’s excellent…

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The Saint and His Bees

November 1st is All Saints Day.  I like to introduce one new saint book into our collection on that day as a gift to my children.  This usually means finding a used copy of a saint book throughout the year at some point and hiding and saving it for that day.  Occasionally, in mid October, I do an online hunt for a particular book I’ve had my eye on and buy it used.  Rarely, is there a new, worthy saint book published that gets bought right away. This year, however, there was!  I took a gamble on The Saint and his Bees because I didn’t know anything about it. All I knew was that I absolutely loved illustrator Claire Brandenburg’s other book The Monk Who Grew Prayer.  I have been reluctant to purchase other titles of hers simply because she writes not explicitly Catholic books… but Orthodox.  Without going into history details, there is a fine distinction between the two faiths and while I respect Orthodox believers very much, I don’t make a point of venerating their saints specifically (pre-schism: the Catholic and Orthodox churches share the same saints… so I always double check to make sure the book being written by an Orthdodox author is about a saint who lived prior to the 11th century or so. There are exceptions: I did buy the book The Wonderful Life of Saint Sergius of Radonezh after researching that St. Sergius was indeed also recognized by the Roman Catholic Church…)

Anyway,  onto this year’s gift to my children: a story about St. Modomnoc (aka: St. Dominic), an Irish monk and student of St. David of Wales in the 6th century. It tells of his bond with the monastery’s bees and the legend of how bees were introduced into Ireland because the swarm  didn’t want to let their dear monk go when he had to return to the island… so they followed him!  Illustrated in Brandenburg’s classic, rough, quirky style, the story is sweet and fun and a great addition to our collection.  I’ll have to do some updating to my listmania lists in this category. I only wish it (and The Monk Who Grew Prayer) was available in hardback!  Such a pity to have lovely stories vulnerable to my ravishing, rowdy-handed children!  I just have to be extra careful…  🙂

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Bargain Book Roundup!

Skimming through the current Bargain Books on Amazon can be daunting because there is so much chaff and very little wheat. But here are some notable hardcover books that are currently on sale for a good price! Get ’em while they’re hot!

The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I I just talked about how much I love Frane Lessac a couple weeks ago! I was so excited to see this book on sale, it’s my favorite WW1 picture book to date.

The Legend of Saint Nicholas Demi’s version of the story, criticized for having a Catholic bias. I hate to break it you everyone, but Nicholas of Myra was in fact, a Catholic bishop.

Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert This is a pretty new book on St. Martin. I bought it full price last year when it came out… so great was my curiosity. Some folks were a bit offended that the monks in here were portrayed as meanish or critical. I don’t know St. Martin’s story really well, but I do know that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints… and that sometimes, holy people have faced more persecution from INSIDE the church than outside of it! So I was not too bothered by any biases that some saw in this book. It had lovely art and was a good primer on a wonderful man.

Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott I just learned a little about this famous author and was surprised to find out that she never WANTED or INTENDED to write a book for girls! She had other material that her first publisher didn’t love and she was asked to write a story for girls… so she did, and did the sequels just to keep the bills paid. Despite the fact that those stories weren’t what was initially on her heart, she sure made a success of herself for generations to come!

The Trouble with Wishes This is a light, fun retelling of the famous myth about Pygmalion.

Pandora I love Robert Burleigh’s Hercules book and he writes a bunch of other excellent non-fiction titles as well.

Adèle & Simon in America I absolutely love Barbara McClintock; her illustrations are so old-world evocative… and this is a fun little look and find book for little eyes.

Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman One of my favorite Johnny Appleseed picture books.

Snow Superb picture/text symetry here. This would be a great addition to anyone’s winter basket (the general part of this season sometimes gets overlooked in deference to the millions of Christmas season books…)

Close to the Wind: The Beaufort Scale I have not seen this in person yet, but it looks absolutely delightful and original and perfect for explaining not only the scale on which wind is measured but so many other nautical things too, lovely art!

Angela and the Baby Jesus A beautiful picture book embodying the “real meaning” of Christmas from the author of the famous Angela’s Ashes.

Merry Christmas, Curious George! I don’t generally advocate for commercial characters in picture books, but Curious George was cool before he became… well… cool. So if you have any young fans in your house who’d love a George Christmas book, this is your ticket…

Corn. Gail Gibbons may not author the most beautiful books on the planet, but they sure are excellent contributions to non-fiction topics. Corn would be a great addition to anyone’s harvest or autumn basket of books. I recently found Spiders at the thrift store for our Fall basket and think Corn would accompany that nicely!

Panorama: A Foldout Book I don’t know much about this book, but it looks intriguing and like it might make for a beautiful, unique gift. Here is a blog post I found describing it a bit more in depth.

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Music, Mozart and Riots in Paris over Russian Ballets

How very sad that history is so tragically boring for so many students. I feel like I got the short end of the stick in growing up not interested in history. This is why I’ve made it my personal mission to bring people and cultures and events and pasts alive and relevant to my own children. Picture books are an amazing help in this category. Currently in the thick of the American Western Expansion as well as Ancient Rome, I’ve been glued to the stories my children and I read together. Who knew it could be so fascinating?! The story of mankind is downright riveting!

As it is, we utilize picture books a lot to learn about composers and music. The stories behind some of the greatest music in the world are tremendously compelling. The first dip into living music history has been brought to us courtesy of the books by Anna Harwell Celenza and I’ve even used her books as spines for which composer we study. (Still waiting on Mozart Anna! Will I have to settle for the nice but incomplete The Magic Flute: An Opera by Mozart? Or try to find a copy of the tragically out of print Mozart Finds a Melody?Thankfully, Diane Stanley offers us a good biography to start with: Mozart: The Wonder Child).  Each of Celenza’s books doesn’t try to give a biographical sketch of the composer (like some other good picture books out there) but rather focuses on the individual story that inspired a particular piece of music, e.g. Beethoven’s joy and then dissilusionment about Napoleon with The Heroic Symphony or the homesick musicians who put their feet down with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, etc. Her latest installment is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which is at the top of my wish list!

As it is, finding picture books on some of the less famous composers is much more difficult. This is why I was particularly delighted to read Lauren Stringer’s newest book: When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky. The story is my favorite kind for my multi-aged family. Simple and easy for my 6 year old to understand and enjoy and with comprehensive end-notes for my 10 year old to research further into it. Stringer illustrated the book in her typical bold colorful way but with added meaning:

Dance and music were not the only arts undergoing colossal change at the beginning of the twentieth century. All of the arts were exploding in new compositions, colors and dimensions. In celebration of that change, I have made reference to many of my favorite paintings from that time throughout this book. To illustrate when Stravinsky and Nijinsky first met in 1911, I found inspiration in elements of The Red Studio by Henri Matisse, painted in the same year. Cubism took the art world by storm in 1907… several of my illustrations reflect cubist influence on that angular, flattened choreography of Nijinsky and the fractured, dissonant chords of Stravinsky’s music…

The story is about The Rite of Spring and how that came to be. The extraordinary thing about this is how one 34 minute ballet could cause a riot in 1913 Paris! The audience was so taken aback by the very novelty of the music and dancers that they protested and argued and threw punches over whether it was a disaster or brilliance!

My kids, so saturated in such a wide variety of music and dance nowadays found this to be quite perplexing and amusing. Stringer’s website provides an activity guide for this book that makes the entire story an excellent cornerstone for a unit study. History is thrilling indeed!

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Electric Ben!!!

Yes, we’ve transitioned into Springtime and yes, it’s Easter and I missed out on blabbing all about my favorite Easter books because I tried to really limit my computer time during Lent.  I’ve been itching to share some goodies discovered and biblio-thoughts that have marinated over those 40 days but first I want to tell you all about Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin before I forget.

Benjamin Franklin is absolutely the BEST character for Revolutionary Era picture books.  His unique background and personality and lifetime accomplishments make him ripe for the memorializing… and there have been many books written about him.  So when I noticed a brand new one out by Robert Byrd, I was mildly surprised that publishers would consider any more books on Franklin. I mean, he’s not exactly a novelty in the picture book world and I wasn’t convinced an author could offer us anything fresh about the man.


Byrd has proved me wrong.  His book is absolutely a new essential for Franklinophiles and for students studying the birth of our nation (or electricity, or fireplaces, or printmaking, etc…).  The book is best suited for maybe ages 9 and up. It’s wordy and fascinating and the pictures, though quite well done are fairly small for the most part. The book is the epitome of a living book. It could honestly be a starting spine for an entire Revolutionary era study and use all the fascinating bits of Franklin’s life as jumping off points for other things. He covers science, the economy, politics, nation building, farming, weather… truly Franklin’s was a universal mind.

To be fair, there a number of excellent Ben Franklin books out there. We absolutely LOVE our How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning for example. And the never disappointing D’Aulaire’s Benjamin Franklin is also on our bookshelf. But there was just something really special about Byrd’s new book. It was so thorough! Just so well done all around! So, take that for what it’s worth. But Benjamin Franklin is the quintessential American and if it seems random to praise his books on Easter Monday, so be it.

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From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World

Every now and again, a really, really special biographical picture book comes along that makes me giddy.  By now, you know I love this genre of picture books best of all and I wanted to highlight one really excellent book that was just published last month: From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World.  What makes it great is the delicate balance it has mastered in a genre where so many others fall short– bringing the subject alive without weighing us down with facts and details.  See, some non-fiction picture books seem to be written as little more than textbooks with pictures.  Boo.  I appreciate the effort, but children’s books ought to contain stories first and foremost and if the author can’t manage to create a story out of his subject, he ought to exit the children’s book world.  That said, there are many fantastic living, story books out there.  I am so happy to add From the Good Mountain to the list.

The text is poetic while still staying informative and grounded.  It is rhythmic in a most satisfactory way.  James Rumford (the same author who brought us the wonderful Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs) wrote this book as a series of riddles: “What was made of rags and bones, soot and seeds? What wore a dark brown coat and was filled with gold? What took lead and tin and a mountain to make?” The pictures are superb; all the little characters from medieval Europe come alive with vibrant colors and details.  Such a delight to hold and read.

Perhaps best of all, is the fact that the author resisted any temptation to get into biased or spurious historical tales about the printing press and its relevance to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church.  The book, even down to the informative footnotes, sticks to the aim of honoring this wonderful achievement with a clear and focused story.  Another excellent point about this book is that Rumford created a companion guide to go with it.  The guide offers even more details on the printing press machinery and times and would make for excellent “living history” reading for anyone studying the late Middle Ages.  Click to see images from inside the book on amazon’s site, especially on the hyperlink “Surprise Me” to give you an idea of what you can expect.

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St. Francis of Assisi meets Bimba Landmann

On Oct. 4th we celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assissi.  I would guess that there is no other saint in existence who has more picture books dedicated to him; he is the saint for all peoples.  What’s not to love about the peaceful man?  You will find St. Francis statues in nature lover’s gardens and you’ll find New Age pacifists quoting him on the topic of peace. Whatever the case may be, it’s always a good idea to get a true sense of the man with some lovely books.  And you have many great choice to choose from. Here is just a partial list of some of the better St. Francis-related titles out there:

Saint Francis
Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy
Canticle of the Sun: Saint Francis of Assisi
Brother Juniper
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
The Good Man of Assisi
Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi

But I want to especially highlight my personal favorite book on the man, called Clare and Francis.  I don’t think I can sing the praises of illustrator Bimba Landmann enough.  I first discovered her with the excellent book: A Boy Named Giotto, and have since placed all her titles on my wish list. She is such a unique artist  for children: color, beauty, and a hint of eerie grace all her pictures.  I am so glad she didn’t let her teacher act as a killjoy for her:  I decided to become an illustrator when I was a child. 

“I think I was about ten years old, or maybe less. I went on a school visit to a museum where there were a lot of ancient illuminated books, all hand painted by Reinassance monks. When I saw those blues… the golds…the paper… I was lightening struck, gripped by this emotion. I immediately rushed to my teacher and told her: “I know what I will do when I grow up!” But she laughed and answered, “that sort of work does’nt exist any more”. I didn’t believe her at all, and I went on filling my exercise book with words, drawings, colours and images from my inner world. “

If you are just going to have one book about St. Francis on your shelves, make it this one… a sample of the inside:

“Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.”  
– St. Francis of Assisi

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