Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Picture Book Biographies

For our PYP Unit of Inquiry, we are learning that Every Life Has a Story. Robert Burleigh's picture book, Langston's Train Ride, tells us about how Langston Hughes first realized he could make his dream come true and become a poet.

Set as a flashback, the reader rides alongside Hughes as he travels to Mexico and is inspired to write, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." I frequently use Hughes' poems in my class, but was unfamiliar with this one. I love that this book could be used as an introduction to poetry, which students often feel is too abstract or out of reach. I also like that it doesn't have to be confined to poetry month or black history month or any other specific time. Finding inspiration and passion relates to everything we teach.

My feelings about the illustrations varied. Full of wild colors, some of the images from outside the train window didn't appeal to me. On the other hand, the art of Hughes' face, full on and realizing what he can accomplish, is truly beautiful.


I love the idea of a picture book as an entry point to a possible new interest. Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau is a perfect fit for my students who live on a Caribbean island and have the opportunity to get scuba certified through our school.

The book starts with a young Jacques, and follows him through his life of inquiry and exploration. He is an inventor, a risk-taker, and a dreamer...namely, someone who I want my students to emulate.

The artwork is whimsical, full of interesting lettering and beautiful details. Readers will especially love the fold-out page which shows how deep and varied the sea can be. I'm so happy this is part of our school library and want to encourage the librarian to face it out and talk it up!

In the same way that a picture book can lead to a new hobby, it can also lead to an interest in a person. Who is more fascinating and appealing than the world's greatest magician, Harry Houdini?

Kathleen Krull and Eric Velasquez's picture book gives an introduction to Houdini via his six most famous tricks. There is so much to learn! I loved finding out that he was an avid reader who spent years studying new acts and that he had the world's largest library on magic.

The idea that Houdini's talent sprung from a desperately poor childhood is fascinating and a great example of someone persisting to find success. Readers will find much to discuss and will be spurred to learn more about Houdini, the man, which the book glosses over. I know that it inspired me to find out more about the subject, which is the ultimate goal of nonfiction: to make readers want to know even more.

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