Illustrated by Stan Fellows. unpgd. Candlewick Press, August, 2008. 076361957-4. (Borrowed from the public library.)
I adore picture book biographies. I think one that is well done is a perfect way to whet a young reader’s appetite. I wish that middle school language arts teachers would consider using them as a hook to entice students into longer and perhaps dryer biographies in their biography units.
This picture book biography is lovely in every way. The illustrations from cover to cover are just gorgeous. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of fully illustrated scenes with scenes that looked torn from a nature sketchpad. While most of the illustrations appear to be double-page spreads, much space needed to be left for some fairly dense text. It’s readable and quite interesting. There’s just a lot of it. I do like how creative the artist got though, as on the pages where he discovers the beauty of the Sierra Mountains.
The young reader learns that John was an energetic youth who was always moving and searching out challenges. He was also the son of a strict and religious father who immigrated to the United States from Scotland. He was very observant and bright and liked to invent things. While he attended college, he was happiest out of doors and managed to walk a several thousand mile long triangle of the United States from Wisconsin to Florida, then on to California.
I imagine that writing a biography must be daunting. Presumably, the writer is interested in her subject, so it must be hard to edit. A picture book biography needs to have its story told in 32 or 40 pages. What does one cut? As I read about this interesting, seemingly solitary man, I wondered whether he ever married or had children. I would’ve liked to read about that aspect of his life rather than the three pages devoted to the story about his ice escape with his dog, Stickeen. Minor quibble though, kid readers will probably eat that scene up with nary a thought to whether he ever married.