Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller is exemplary not only because it successfully communicates how much Keller achieved, but because it’s such a cohesive collaboration between the author, Doreen Rappaport, the artist Matt Travares, and Keller heself, whose quotes are printed with each illustration. Tavares prioritizes the sensory nature of our world: a tree bursting with pink blossoms stretches across two pages; sea spray bursts from waves and splashes against a boat; a cold wind blows Keller’s scarf back during a wintery ferry ride. Dark and light play in high contrast, as if to emphasize Keller’s efforts to emerge from her disability and bring awareness to others. Keller’s words are often so powerful that they supercede Rappaport’s prose, but this is, perhaps, as it should be. Ages 4 and up.
In 1974 Philippe Petit rigged a cable between Manhattan’s Twin Towers and performed probably the most famous high wire act in history. The Man Who Walked Between Towers tells the story of that day in August in words and pictures by Mordicai Gerstein, who somehow manages to communicate Petit’s awesome feat both simply and eloquently. The pictures really give a clear sense of how high above the city he was; you can almost feel the wind buffeting him about. Ages 3 and up.
Introducing children to the historical realities of the world can be daunting when those realities are horrific. How do you tell your children about the Holocaust? With The Harmonica, Tony Johnston has created a way into the subject through one boy’s experience as a prisoner and survivor of a concentration camp. The writing can be beautiful, but it is appropriately spare and sad, as the pictures are appropriately cold and dark, with a rare warm glow to express the happiness that existed before the war, and the hope that it could exist again. Ages 6 and up.
Another story of WWII: A New Coat for Anna, by Harriet Ziefert. We’ve read this one so many times over the years, and it holds up to repeated readings beautifully. There is a lot to appreciate here: Ziefert takes children through the process of making a wool coat, from sheep to tailor, but more importantly, she demonstrates the shared suffering of civilians in war’s aftermath, and how they are brought together as they try to rebuild their lives. Anita Lobel’s illustration style is quite innocent and folksy, and so she suggests the hardships of post-war Germany in a manageable way for children. Ages 3 and up.
In Becoming Babe Ruth, Matt Tavares recounts how a young misfit named George was sent, at age seven, to a “Industrial School for Boys,” and how this led to his life as the iconic ball player. Tavares does an excellent job of demonstrating how Ruth’s childhood circumstances shaped the man and his sense of responsibility for the Baltimore reform school where he grew up, and his empathy for disadvantaged children all over America. Taveres’ illustrations are detailed and expressive, and he composes some fine lines. In describing a Catholic priest’s powerful ability to hit home runs, for example, Taveres writes, “He repeats this magnificent act again and again.” One quibble, though: I wish he’d found another way to establish a timeline. It feels like the dates (“June 13, 1902” etc.) are shoehorned into the story, and for younger children it’s a confusing distraction. Better to simply give Ruth’s age, or write “A year later,” perhaps? Ages 4 and up.
There are a lot of picture books about baseball players. Play Ball, Jackie! by Stephen Krensky is told from the perspective of a young Italian-American Dodgers fan who goes to Jackie Robinson’s first major league baseball game. As well as telling the story of Jackie’s first game and the racism surrounding that event, the book encourages readers to think about how people gained acceptance in America in the first half of the twentieth century, as immigrants and minorities. I have to admit, though, that Joe Morse’s illustrations are the real draw. They are a tour-de-force, and many look like they belong in a gallery or museum. Ages 6-9.
For budding baseball fans who love statistics, try You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener. The pages are packed with information and the illustrations are strong; you can feel the heft of the players, their energy, and the bright colours of the ball field.