Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 4): Books For the Hero Within

December 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Boy Who Harnessed the WindBenjamin Franklin once penned: “If you would not be forgotten/ As soon as you are dead and rotten,/ Either write things worth reading,/ Or do things worth the writing.” OK, that might not be a quote we need to read aloud to our young children, but its sentiment can and should inform the books we choose to share with them.

The genre of biographies written for children is taking off like never before; it seems not only are parents and educators seizing the chance to inspire our young ones with tales of historical figures, but kids themselves are embracing these literary opportunities to inform their own choices, to pave their own paths worth living. And it’s no accident that many of this past year’s biographies are picture books: against a backdrop of beautiful art and poetic text, stories about scientists, writers, inventors, artists, and peacemakers become that much more gripping. The books listed at the end of this post are treasures worth giving and owning; their artistic caliber alone makes them a far cry from the dry, fact-filled paperbacks that we once suffered through for school reports.

Out of all the outstanding picture-book biographies that have been published this past year, my most favorite is actually more of an autobiography. William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Ages 5-10) is the story of William Kamkwamba, a child with “a love of building things,” who grew up in Sub-Saharan Africa during the great drought and famine of the last decade. With no money for food and forced to drop out of school, Kamkwamba seeks refuge in a nearby American-built library that is full of science books; it is here that he translates the sentence that he uses to save his village: “Windmills can produce electricity and pump water.”

Through lyrical narration and Elizabeth Zunon’s stunning illustrations made from oil paint and paper collage, every moment of this amazing story is vividly brought to life. Our children can literally feel the sun-scorched fields of maize surrounding William’s village; they can feel his puzzlement and determination and pride as he goes about constructing a windmill to harness wind into electricity and bring water to “soak the dry ground, creating food where once there was none”; they can feel the whisper of his ancestors while he sleeps and the skepticism of his neighbors while he wakes; but above all, they can feel what is at stake when one dreams big.

This book represents precisely why I love children’s books so much: it is not only a perfect marriage of prose and picture, but its message transcends its story to move my very being. It is the kind of book that, as soon as I discovered it, I wanted to race home to read to my son—and then bring it to his school, and then make everyone I know buy it for their children. It is the kind of book that speaks of hope. And hope, especially in light of recent events, is something we could all use.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Other Favorite Recently Published Picture Book Biographies:
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 4-8)
Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter & Kevin Hawkes (Ages 5-10)
Nelson Mandela, Kadir Nelson (Ages 5-10; actually due to be released in Jan 2013)
Annie and Helen, by Deborah Hopkinson & Raul Colon (Ages 5-10)
Barnum’s Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World, by Tracey Fern and Boris Kulikov (Ages 5-10)
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With the Chimps, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 6-12)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies & Melissa Sweet (Ages 6-12)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by Robert Byrd (Ages 7-14)

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