The Center for Children's Books

Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Artist Biographies and Autobiographies - December 2010

Selected and annotated by Beth Yendrek.

Scieszka, Jon. Knucklehead:Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka. Viking, 2008. 106p. Gr. 3-6.
Author and illustrator, Scieszka, who contributed to the making of well known favorites such as The Stinky Cheese Man, Math Curse, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and the Time Warp Trio series lets us in on what his childhood was like. Scieszka throws in plenty of his unique humor to make his autobiography as entertaining and funny as his fiction books.

Li, Cunxin. Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao's Last Dancer. Walker, 2008. 40p. 5-8 yrs.
The true story of Li Cunxin, who at age 11 was chosen by officials in communist China to leave his family and become trained as a premier dancer. He grew up to travel all over the world but never forgot the family or the living conditions he left behind. This is the picture-book version of the adult bestseller Mao’s Last Dancer and contains information on the political background of the story.

Stone, Tanya Lee. Sandy's Circus: A Story about Alexander Calder . Viking, 2008. 32p. 5-9 yrs.
An entertaining and informative story about the beginnings of Alexander Calder’s artistic career and the creation of an imaginative and famous work of art: the Cirque Calder. Hired as an artist for a two week stint to sketch the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Calder finds the images staying with him and developing themselves from daydreams to reality in bits and pieces of everyday objects. This circus is on permanent display at the Whitney Museum in New York City.

 Stanley, Diane. Mozart: The Wonder Child: A Puppet Play in three Acts. Collins/HarperCollins, 2009. 48p. Gr. 4-7.
Award winning author and illustrator Diane Stanley creates an illustrated puppet show to spotlight one of history’s most proficient musical prodigies. Written as a three-act play, Stanley includes funny anecdotes about Mozart’s youth and musings on what he must have felt like having such an unusual childhood. Also included in the endnotes is a timeline of Mozart’s life.

Partridge, Elizabeth. John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth. Viking, 2005. 232p. Gr. 9-12.
National Book Award finalist Elizabeth Partridge writes an intimate look at the legend of John Lennon. Beginning at his birth during a WWII air raid, continuing through his rebellious teens, beyond his life as a Beatle to his murder at the age of 40, Partridge discusses Lennon’s life in depth and with flair. Black and white photographs from throughout the artist’s life add to the level of intimacy reached by this biography.

Marsalis, Wynton. Jazz A*B*Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits. Candlewick, 2005. 76p. Gr. 8-12.
This is a biography for those who appreciate jazz and for those who are just being introduced to its innovative musical style. Marsalis and friends use symbolic paintings, poetry and biographical sketches to create an alphabetic who’s who of this musical genre. A thoroughly unique and innovative view of how jazz has entwined itself through our cultural history.

Reef,Catherine. ErnestHemingway: A Writer's Life. Clarion, 2009. 192p. Gr. 7-12.
Having a life worthy of one from his novels, Ernest Hemingway remains a literary icon that still fascinates people today. In this biography specifically designed to introduce younger readers to this noteworthy author Reef presents an in-depth study that is well written and passionate. The excitement Reef has for her subject shines through on the pages of her book. Photographs and a listing of Hemingway’s works are also included.

McDonough, Yona Zeldis. Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott. Ottaviano/Holt, 2009. 48p. Gr. 3-5.
McDonough follows Alcott's life through her unusual childhood, beginning of her writing career, continuing through her nursing experience in the Civil War, discussing the creation of Little Women, to her death. The art and design of the volume is exceptional making Alcott seem like a fairy tale heroine. Included also are quotations from the author, poems written in childhood, a recipe for her favorite dessert, and a timeline.

Christensen, Bonnie. Django. Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009. 32p. 6-9 yrs.
A picture book about jazz musician Jean Reinhardt, this story emphasizes his early roots among his Gypsy clan and his struggle to support himself with his music after he was abandoned by his father. The book is narrated in free verse with pictures of Roma and Parisian life. The author also gives information about Reinhardt's later career, the Roma, and some vocabulary terms included in the text. It is suggested that the read be enhanced with some background music by Django.

Kohler, Dean Ellis. Rock 'n' Roll Soldier. Collins/HarperTeen, 2009. 278p. Gr. 8-12.
Dean Kohler’s teen dreams were on the rise as he scored a national record deal. But just as quickly they were dashed down when his draft notice for Vietnam arrived. Sent as a 19 year old soldier to participate in a war that doled out death and fear on a daily basis, Kohler finds strength in his music as he is commanded by his captain to form a rock 'n' roll band. With a mission to boost morale Kohler finds his experience serving his country to be a unique and memorable one. Filled with action and suspense, and centered on themes of war and overcoming adversity, this should appeal to all readers, especially teens.

Diakite, Baba Wague. A Gift from Childhood: Memories of an African Boyhood. Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2010. 134p. Gr. 5-8.
In his illustrated memoir Baba Wague Diakite creates a vivid picture of his African childhood. Sharing humorous and exciting anecdotes the author takes us from his childhood to his adult years including the knowledge gained from his struggles and experiences along the way. Diakite touches on the importance of education and imagination as he discovers his artistic talent for storytelling and how it can touch and uplift not just him but others around him as well.

Ryan, Pam Munoz. The Dreamer. Scholastic, 2010. 372p. Gr. 5-8.
A stunning work in the writing and art, Pam Ryan’s biography of poet Pablo Neruda is a delight for the ear and eye. It’s a delicate insight inside the trials of difficulties young Neruda faced when finding his voice. Each chapter ends with sensitive and thought-provoking questions that engage the reader and encourages thought well after the cover is closed. Also included are excerpts from some of Neruda’s poems.

Lange, Karen E. Nevermore: A Photobiography of Edgar Allan Poe. National Geographic, 2009. 64p. Gr. 5-9.
Presented as a photobiography, Lange’s work brings alive the life of writer Edgar Allan Poe. Concentrating on cultural influences in Poe’s work, the author spotlights similarities between the artist’s personal struggles and those of society as a whole. Credited with creating multiple literary genres such as the mystery and detective stories, Poe has long been remembered as a tormented soul with a tragic end, much the same as the stories he created. A timeline and list of supplementary resources is included.

Lat. Kampung Boy. First Second/Roaring Brook, 2006. 141p. Gr. 5-8.
In the first of a series of autobiographical graphic novels we meet Lat, a Muslim boy growing up during the 1950s in rural Malaysia. He makes full use of his skills as a comics creator to depict an exotic world in a way that makes it accessible for all young readers. Sharing the good and bad of his childhood along with rich cultural details Lat creates an entertaining and informative account of an interesting life that leaves the reader hungry for more.

Lat. Town Boy. First second/Roaring Brook, 2007. 192p. Gr. 7-12.
This follow-up to Kampung Boy picks up during Lat’s teen years when he makes a move from his familiar kampong to a larger, more progressive city. Entering boarding school, he discovers modern music, romance, and realizes his talent and desire to create art. Lat’s skills as a comic artist are still in full use as is his engaging and illustrative voice as he continues to describe for the reader his coming of age journey to adulthood.

Orgill, Roxane. Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire. Candlewick, 2007. 41p. Gr. 3-6.
Whimsical illustrations and a picture-book format bring to life the childhood of Fred and Adele Astaire. We learn that Adele was credited with being the “real dancer” while Fred remains the part of the duo more widely known. But this is both their story of growing up together and growing famous together as internationally-renowned dancers. Roxane Orgill and illustrator Stephanie Jorisch are another successful team as they bring to us the tale of two artists who step lightly into the hearts of millions. Also included are a bibliography of adult titles and a list of films.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane. Holt, 2008. 26p. 5-8 yrs.
Focusing on jazz great John Coltrane’s youth, Carole Weatherford takes the reader on a journey that seeks out the early influences of this musical genius. Simple and straightforward vocabulary combines with rich metaphors and visually interesting illustrations to create a lyrical insight into young Coltrane’s life. The author ends with selected recordings and a reading list.

Brighton, Catherine. KeepYour Eye On the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton. Flash Point/Roaring Brook, 2008. 32p 6-9 yrs.
Writer and illustrator Brighton creates a humorous and authoritative account of the life of film star Buster Keaton. Told in an autobiographical style, we learned that he was catapulted to success, literally, in a vaudeville act with his father, that he only attended one day of school, and that he found fame after running away to New York. Brighton’s illustrations enhance the text and children are given a fully entertaining introduction to a cultural icon of the silver screen.

Shields, Charles J. I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee. Holt, 2008. 272 p. Gr. 7-10.
This is an adaptation of Shields’ award-winning biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Chronicling Lee’s life from her southern childhood alongside companion Truman Capote through her celebrated success for the literary achievement, To Kill a Mockingbird, Shields puts together a comprehensive view of this enigmatic author. Rich in detail and resources, this is an interesting read for those who are already familiar with Harper Lee and those who are just being introduced to her for the very first time.

Sullivan, George. Berenice Abbott, Photographer: An Independent Vision. Clarion, 2006. 170p.Gr. 7-10.
Complete with reproductions of Berenice Abbott’s artistic photographs as well as quotes from the artist herself, George Sullivan provides a well written account of the life of a bohemian who rebelled against the norms of society to strike out on her own in order to follow her passion. The passion of Sullivan also comes through as he writes an engaging account that provides to the reader a picture of an artist’s life beyond the pictures that she left us.

Rubin, Susan Goldman. Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter. Abrams, 2006. 48p. Gr. 4-7.
Photographs, text layout and pop art images combine to create a child-friendly introduction to the artist who became an icon for his depictions of cultural images that forced society to look at the familiar in a different way. Rubin writes of Warhol’s entire life including photographic examples of his early drawings and also his most famous works. She includes quotes from colleagues and friends as well as a glossary, source notes, a detailed timeline of Warhol’s life, and a list of museums where his art is featured.

Reef, Catherine. E. E. Cummings: A Poet's Life. Clarion, 2006. 160p.Gr. 5-9.
A famous American poet, e.e.cummings was and is known for his unique style in his literary works. Reef’s biography examines the life of the man and the development of the poetic style that is still influential today. This biography includes Cumming’s artwork, photographs, and poetry as well as quotes and poems from his family and peers. A comprehensive work that allows the reader to envision and appreciate an American original.  

Fleischman, Sid. Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini. Greenwillow, 2006. 210p. Gr. 6-10.
Houdini was known for extracting himself from anything. However, Newberry award winner Sid Fleischman manages to capture a bit of his spirit in this biography for the rest of us to examine and enjoy. With engaging storytelling the author encourages us to remain amazed at the great escape artist and magician. Included are illustrative black and white photos as well as an annotated bibliography.  

Winter, Jonah . Dizzy. Levine/Scholastic,2006. 48p. 6-10 yrs.
Jonah Winter presents a visually and linguistically pleasing biography of Dizzy Gillespie. Written in rhyming free-verse this story becomes a musical trip in itself sharing how Dizzy turned his childhood antics into the Bebop genre he is famous for creating. Engaging language, a strong and uplifting theme, and spectacular pictures create a unique and worthwhile introduction to a jazz legend.  

Siegel, Siena Cherson. To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel. Jackson/Atheneum, 2006. 60p. Gr. 4-8.
Beginning at age six, Siena Siegel dreams of becoming a dancer. Traveling with her from her childhood in Puerto Rico, to school in Boston, to the stage in a performance with the New York City Ballet the reader is kept entertained and engrossed with the fluid writing and complementary illustrations. A unique offering among young adult biographies, this graphic novel can be enjoyed and appreciated by all ages.

Nathan, Amy. Meet the Dancers: From Ballet, Broadway, and Beyond. Holt, 2008. 256p. Gr. 4-8.
The reader is introduced to sixteen professional dancers in conversational mini-bios followed by a focused chapter on each personality. All styles of dance are represented from ballet to Broadway. Each interviewee has a unique story to share, but similarities can be seen in each tale in regards to the level of training and commitment needed by each dancer to achieve their dream. Black and white photos enhance the intimacy and allow for a deeper connection to each artist.

Nathan, Amy. Meet the Musicians: From Prodigies (Or Not) to Pros . Holt, 2006. 160p. Gr. 4-8.
Nathan interviews multiple members of the New York Philharmonic in order to share their unique and individual paths to successful careers as musicians. Fifteen profiles are included that span all sections of the orchestra. An informal tone and plenty of personal information from each artist make the bios interesting and accessible to a younger audience. This book is a nice introduction to different instruments and what it takes to make a career out of a love of music.