Bingeing on biographies


Winter weather is ideal escape to an afternoon of reading true stories

Record-breaking cold. Cabin fever. Even hot chocolate gets boring after a while. Let’s invite some guests, some people whose stories we want to hear. Let’s get a stack of picture book biographies and fill our reading times with our children with remarkable lives.

“Between the Lines,” written by Sandra Neil Wallace and illustrated by Bryan Collier (Simon & Schuster, 2018; $17.99) gives us the life of Ernie Barnes. From childhood Ernest loved to paint. He painted in mud at first.

“When Ernest grew too old to mud paint, he carried a sketch book. ... He drew the junk man peddling hubcaps./Families walking home from church./The old man snoring on the green sofa in the vacant lot, while the kids played football,” Wallace writes.

As he grew into a tall young man, the high school football coach wanted him on the team. “He told the coach his Mama wouldn’t let him play.”

But the coach made a donation to his mama’s church. That was the beginning of Ernest’s football career. At North Carolina College in Durham, he played football and studied art. His art teacher told him, “Art is all around you.” Ernest became Ernie, and eventually he found his subject in paintings of football players.

“For years ... Ernie’s drawing hands painted stories. Celebrities, art lovers, and athletes pushed close to admire his paintings in galleries and museums across the country,” Wallace writes.

An author’s note tells us his paintings now hang in museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Daphne, Alabama.


“Jazz Day,” written by Roxanne Orgill and illustrated by Francis Vallejo (Candlewick, 2016; $18.99) tells us the story of a photograph — the famous Art Kane photograph of jazz musicians, taken in front of a brownstone in Harlem.

Kane was not a professional photographer — he had to borrow the camera he used. But he was a jazz fan. He pitched the idea of the photograph to his boss at Esquire magazine, and the boss said yes.

Kane found the right brownstone, borrowed a camera and put out the word to jazz musicians: come Tuesday, August 12.

He had no idea who or how many would come.

Roxanne Orgill tells the story of this event in prose poems focusing on many of those who came, as well as Art Kane himself: “ ... what if only four come/or five/“The Golden Age of Jazz”/ with five guys/ look right/ look left/a crazy request/ what if nobody shows;”/Count Basie — “Nobody calls me Bill/ Except my wife/I’m the Count/Ol’ Base/Or Holy Main/As in main stem. The buck stops here/”

Her language sings in the poem for Lester Young “How to Make a Porkpie Hat:” It starts with folding instructions and then, “And you’ve got it/a cap/like a padre’s/but flatter/ with a brim/ like a platter/invented/like his sound/as soft as butter/…”

This book could be an introduction to some of the most famous artists of the jazz age, or a case study in prose poetry, or a piece of history for all ages. I never tire of reading it.

And speaking of jazz, let’s invite into our afternoon “Born to Swing Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Life in Jazz” by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Michelle Wood. Lil Hardin Armstrong was one of jazz’s most talented piano players. Her story is one of passion for music and persistence that gave her a career when there were few women jazz performers.

Roxanne Orgill also has given us “Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat,” a story of the young Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald grew up dancing on the streets of Yonkers. When she was 14 her mother died, and she moved in with her aunt Virginia in Harlem.


“Ella was a rough-tough raggedy cat ...” Eventually, she was sent to a school for orphans, “a nightmare place.” After two years she ran away. “She was a half-starved raggedy cat of 17 with ho home, but she was free — free to slip on down to the new Apollo Theater” as soon as she heard the news about Amateur Night.

She won two talent contests in Harlem but was still singing and dancing for tips on the street when a man from Chick Webb’s band and invited her to join the band. Chick was dubious. She looked pretty raggedy, but when he heard her sing, “She had a beat, a dancing beat he could feel in his drumming fingers.” And that was the beginning of the career of this American Classic singer.

Our last guest comes from India by way of “The Secret Kingdom,” written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola (Candlewick, 2018; $16.99).

Nek Chand grew up in a village in northern India, listening to the stories and songs of his culture. He became a farmer. Then India was partitioned. Nek lived in the new country of Pakistan. But he was a Hindu and had to leave. He and his family walked for 24 days.

“Nek carried only village stories in his broken heart,” writes Rosenstock. He resettled in a “sharp-edged city of colorless concrete. Nothing in the modern place tugged at Nek’s village heart ... Nek dreamed of a place to belong.”

Over the next 15 years he created in an unsettled jungle the place he had yearned for — a secret kingdom populated with people, animals, structures. He made this kingdom from “chipped sinks, cracked water pots, broken glass bangles,” boulders, even old toilets.

When city officials found this kingdom, they threatened to tear it down. But people who had visited, who loved this place would not allow its destruction. Now it is the second most-visited site in India.

Out of a yearning for home Nek Chand created a community for people all over the world who love and defend his amazing village.


l Jacqueline Briggs Martin of Mount Vernon writes books for children, including “Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Re-Mix” and “Creekfinding.”

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