Fiction Based on True Stories — 2011 Picture Books (Cybils Nominees)

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Although I’m on the panel for Fiction Picture Books for this year’s Cybils, one thing I’m really enjoying is reading a smattering of historical fiction and books based on true stories as well. Below are some I’ve really enjoyed. There are, of course, far more books based on true stories on the nominations list that I haven’t written about, but this may get you started.

The Crossing by Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Jim Madsen (Atheneum Books, 2011) is a creative retelling of the Lewis and Clark journey, as told from the perspective of the infant Jean Baptiste strapped on the cradle board on Sacagawea’s back. Brilliantly illustrated pictures of the various North Western American landscapes and careful descriptions of the sounds, animals, and textures a young toddler would have experienced provide a compelling version of a historic journey. Given the young child’s perspective, there is not a lot of fact until the Author’s Note describes the Lewis and Clark expedition, giving a little more context. But for the young student of Lewis and Clark, Jean Baptiste’s account of the journey provides enough setting, trial, and curiosity to bring the subject alive on a preliminary level.  The Crossing is a wonderful picture book of a true event. (Nominated by L. Miren)

All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) is based on the author/illustrator’s true family story of his ancestors coming to America from Italy, taking a little shovel that would prove to be the link between the generations. The shovel, which first is a garden trowel, becomes a shovel for measuring fruit and nuts, then it becomes a shovel for measuring out beans and pasta. As the generations pass, the setting changes, until the author returns  from the suburbs to New York City, giving his own son the trowel to dig in the dirt of his rooftop garden plot. Given my interest in my own immigrant family history, I loved the story, the emphasis on family, and the connection through the generations from the little shovel and the New York City setting. The author’s illustrations are colorful and interesting for the young reader. In all, a wonderful true-to-life story for any American, and especially for those with their own immigrant stories to share with the young reader. (Nominated by Gracie Z)

Play Ball, Jackie! by Stphen Krensky and illustrated by Joe Morse (Millbrook Press, 2011) tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s open day of baseball as told from the perspective of a young Italian-American boy and his father. I must admit I’m not a fan of baseball, but there was something touching about this story even for someone unfamiliar with baseball terminology, for when Jackie Robinson began playing baseball it was a monumental civil rights issue. The young boy (and by extension, the young reader) tries to understand the unreasonable explanations behind the discrimination, all the while enjoying a fantastic baseball game. The story was well told, and I imagine that young fans of baseball would even more love the account, the story, and the hope it gives. (Nominated by Steve L.)

These Hands by Margaret H. Mason and Illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Houghton Mifflin, March 2011) tells two stories: one of a grandfather teaching his grandson how to do great things with his hands, like tie a shoe and shuffle cards. The other story the grandfather teaches his grandson is how those same hands were not allowed to touch the bread in the Wonder Bread factory; grandfather’s hands and many others went to work petitioning for Civil Rights. The illustrations are realistic paintings that perfectly capture the mood of the grandfather and grandson working, learning, and playing together. As I read the story of the Civil Rights petitions, I felt chills; it’s a moving true story of what people can do together. The story was powerfully told, and I loved how the story came full circle, the young boy celebrating all his hands can do now, including baking bread, thanks to those who did work to petition for rights. These Hands includes a historical note at the end. (Nominated by Sarah Wendorf)

White Water by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein and illustrated by Shadra Strickland (Candlewick, August 2011) is based on a true story from the childhood of one of the authors in the Jim Crow South. One afternoon, two boys, one white and one African-American, got off a bus and ran for the drinking fountain. As they both drank from their designated drinking fountains, the black boy wondered what the water from the white drinking fountain tasted like. He found a way to come back to the drinking fountains and try the white water, only to discover it tasted the same as the water from the “colored” drinking fountain: the two drinking fountains were connected by the same pipe. The illustrations are done in watercolor and ink; my favorite spread is that in which the boy ran for the drinking fountain and the illustration shows his toy soldiers keeping cover for him. The story as a whole captured the frustration the child must have felt. It is told from the child’s point of view, thus helping the kids relate to the era and frustration. White Water also gives important insight in to history, especially why the Civil Rights Movement was so necessary. Although I think White Water is geared toward older children, Raisin’s comment after reading this book proved to me that even young children can grasp the message of equality. He said, “I liked the part when he figured out the water was the same.” (Nominated by Andi Sibley)

Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra (Tricycle Press, 2011) is based on the true story of a librarian in rural Colombia who delivers library books into the lives of children with the help of his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto. Told from the perspective of a little girl named Ana who dreams of the world beyond her home, Waiting for the Biblioburro lets us wait with anticipation with her as she looks forward to the coming of the library donkeys. When she doesn’t have her own books to read, she tells her own stories. When she does have books, she devours them and dreams of the return of the biblioburro to open up the world even further. The text is interspersed with Spanish vocabulary (about 20 words), with a glossary at the end. Each painting is acrylic on panel, perfectly suited to the South American setting of the story. In the end, Raisin and I found this an inspiring account of the power of story in our lives. Raisin loves his library and couldn’t imagine being far from one. A great reminder of the blessings we have of being close to a multitude of books! (Nominated by Gina Ruiz)

The Honeybee Man by Lela Nargi and illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker (Schwartz & Wade, 2011) is based on the true story of two bee keepers who live in Brooklyn, New York. With fantastic collage and oil painting illustrations, it tells the story of Fred, who checks on his bees every morning, and at the end of the summer collects the honey. I love how this book made honey-making a community event, since The Honeybee Man reminds us that the bees are visiting the trees and flowers of the entire Brooklyn community. Fred dreams of flying over his community with the bees, so the picture book adds a degree of fantasy to the process, but a page of front matter and an author’s note after the story provide scientific detail for the interested young reader. Raisin has been fascinated by bees and their ability to make honey, so he was particularly interested in this book. We read it many times, wondering what flavor our local trees and flowers would give to local honey. (Nominated by Karin Lachmann)

And then for a non-Cybils nominated book that we’ve enjoyed: I feel I must also mention The Beeman by Laurie Krebs and illustrated by Melissa Iwai (The National Geographic Society, 2002), which Raisin and I also read many times. In some senses, this book is simpler than the other bee book. Rather than providing a story, it shows, through rhyming descriptions and illustrations, the tools the bee keeper needs to take care of his hives (“Here is the…”). Rather than being a city-dwelling bee keeper, this is a young child’s grandpa in a more rural setting. In the end, the child, of course, enjoys a treat with his grandparents: “Here are the muffins, all warm and delicious and dripping with honey on Grandma’s best dishes.” Raisin loved to finish reading the book and say to me “Mommy, I’m so glad that my grandpa’s the beeman!” I had to remind him that his grandpa is not the beeman, but he liked to pretend he is after reading this book.

Unless otherwise noted, all books were read from library copies for consideration for the Cybils 2011 awards. I was not compensated for review.

Reviewed on November 15, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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