l love picture book biographies. A good one can spark an interest for a kid that can lead down all kinds of rabbit trails of learning. Sometimes it’s a well-known figure, but whose story is told in a new way. Sometimes it’s someone you’ve never heard of before reading, and after reading you can’t believe you’d never heard of before. One of the most fun parts of being a Cybils panelist has been reading a lot of new biographies, of all kinds of people. When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill fell into the “never heard of him” category for me. It’s the story of a boy named Clive from Jamaica who grew up to become DJ Kool Herc, one of the pioneers of hip hop. I have to admit I’m not the target audience for this book. I don’t particularly like hip hop, and I’m not particularly musically inclined. But I found myself really enjoying the story of this culture-changing moment in history and I can imagine how cool it would be to see a biography of someone like me if I was a kid into hip hop or rap.
Flying Solo: How Ruth Elder Soared into America’s Heart by Julie Cummins looks at a different pioneer, this time a woman pilot, but also a figure who I had never heard of before reading this biography. Elder, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, also attempted a cross-Atlantic flight but she was before Earhart. She failed, but impressed the world with her courage when she had to bail out of her plane in the middle of the ocean. Along with Earhart, Elder and five other female pilots organized a cross-country air race that showed the world that women had a place in aviation. One of my favorite parts of this book was the final two page spread that shows young girls reading books about flight while surrounded by portraits of famous women in aviation history. An easy to follow key on the next page identifies all the figures.
Apparently, my education was lacking. Another historical figure I was mostly ignorant of was Nikola Tesla until last year when I was researching information on Thomas Edison and began to read about the Tesla vs. Edison controversy. Elizabeth Rusch brings this overshadowed figure to life in Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World. Tesla, like Edison, was a brilliant inventor and it’s his alternating current (instead of Edison’s direct current) that is what most of the world depends on today. A small quibble with the book is that many of the scientific explanations are left to the end pages. Readers may not truly understand alternating and direct current until they finish the book and may be left wondering what all the fuss was. Kudos to the author, however, for including not only the basic scientific explanation on the end pages but also more in depth explanations of some of Tesla’s experiments and demonstrations.
These books are nominees for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained copies of the books from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.
Can’t get enough non-fiction? Stop by Non-Fiction Monday, hosted this week by Apples With Many Seeds.