Norah Piehl

Today is a momentous day for young Juan. After years of hearing about his father’s landscaping business, Juan will come along to help for the first time, armed not only with gardening supplies but also with a sketchbook and drawing tools.

During this perfectly ordinary but splendidly memorable day, Juan assists Papi and another worker, Javier, as they rake leaves, mow lawns and prune bushes. He accompanies them to a gardening supply store, where they select plants and flowers for a client. He also joins them at the dump, where the branches and other waste they have collected will be turned into mulch. Finally, the budding artist meets Papi’s new clients, listens to their vision for their overgrown yard and sketches out a design for their future garden. Inspired by his father, Juan is learning how to “make the world more beautiful.”

In a note at the end of John Parra’s heartfelt picture book Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son, the author-illustrator reveals that Juan’s story is autobiographical. Working with his father as a young boy inspired Parra to consider a career in landscape architecture and design, though he ultimately took a different path and trained as a fine artist. A photograph of Parra and his father accompanies the note, and the book’s landscaping blueprint endpapers contain a designer’s mark for “Del Parra Landscape Constr.”

Parra incorporates Spanish words and phrases into the text and touches on the importance of Latin American migrant workers to the landscaping industry. It’s an underappreciated job that requires creativity and demanding physical labor. An early scene delicately depicts Juan’s growing recognition of such prejudice: Juan waves to a classmate who is neighbors with one of Papi’s clients, but the boy “looks away and pretends not to see me,” and Juan’s “heart sinks.”

Honoring the great pride that Parra’s father took in his landscaping work, Parra’s characteristically vibrant and finely detailed acrylic illustrations in Growing an Artist depict people and plants with equal affection and respect. The way that Papi points out natural beauties to his artistic young son is tender and moving, and a scene in which he gently lifts a branch to reveal a hidden bird’s nest is especially lovely.

Growing an Artist is a love letter to sons and their fathers, to work done with one’s hands and to making the world more beautiful, no matter what tools are used to do so.

This beautiful autobiographical picture book about a boy who spends the day with his father at his landscaping business is a love letter to those who “make the world more beautiful,” no matter what tools they use to do so.

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado is a truly impressive individual: She’s a philanthropist who’s worked in Silicon Valley’s tech industry, and she’s one of the few women to have climbed all Seven Summits, the Earth’s highest mountain peaks. But as her immersive, inspiring memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage (15.5 hours), makes clear, her accomplished resume only hints at her remarkable story. Scenes from her life—including her childhood in Peru, her sexual abuse by a trusted adult and her later estrangement from her mother following her coming out as a lesbian—are interspersed with scenes from a climb on Mount Everest, where she’s accompanied by fellow sexual violence survivors who, like the author, have found healing and empowerment through physical challenges.

Through her narration, Vasquez-Lavado, whose first language is Spanish, conveys a lifetime of warmth, humor and steely determination.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain.’

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado narrates her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain, with warmth, humor and steely determination.

Twelve-year-old Sai is an assistant to master mapmaker Paiyoon. Sai loves her job and is good at it, but she has a secret mission: to save enough money to escape her home kingdom of Mangkon, where prospects for the future are inextricably bound up with family lineage. But on Sai’s 13th birthday, she will not receive a ceremonial lineal, the chain of golden links that symbolize her ancestry, because her family has no history—at least, not one to celebrate. Her father is a con man, and much of Sai’s skill for duplicating maps and charts stems from helping her father with forgeries.

As Sai’s birthday approaches, the queen issues a new directive: Now that Mangkon has finally achieved peace for the first time in 20 years, it’s time for the kingdom to rededicate itself to exploration. Master Paiyoon asks Sai to accompany him on a southbound ship, which will journey past the 50th parallel, also called the Dragon Line.

Sai soon discovers that everyone on board the ship has a secret, including Master Paiyoon, Captain Sangra and the charismatic Miss Rian, who earned her lineal through wartime heroism. As the voyage gets underway, Sai learns that even the queen’s mission is built on a secret. A rich prize awaits any crew who can locate the elusive Sunderlands, a remote and inaccessible continent where, according to legend, Mangkon’s long-departed dragons now dwell.

In 2021, author Christina Soontornvat received two Newbery Honors for in the same year, one for a novel, the other for a work of nonfiction—a first in the award’s centurylong history (E.L. Konigsburg previously received a Medal and an Honor in 1968, while Meindert de Jong received two Honors in 1954, but all four awards were for fiction). Soontornvat returns to high fantasy to create the Thai-inspired world of The Last Mapmaker, a standalone tale into which she seamlessly incorporates themes of colonialism and environmentalism.

Sai, whose first-person narration keeps the action moving faster than a ship under full sail, is a complicated and compassionately flawed character. It’s easy to sympathize with her dual struggles to identify whom she can trust and reconcile with her family’s past.

If The Last Mapmaker has a fault, it’s a too-quick resolution. Readers who grow invested in Soontornvat’s characters will wish they had just a little more time to spend with them. On the whole, however, the novel is a compelling quest narrative brimming with adventure, surprises and betrayal.

With action that moves faster than a ship under full sail, The Last Mapmaker is a Thai-inspired fantasy brimming with adventure, surprises and betrayal.

Eleven-year-old June Yang feels like bad luck follows her family everywhere. First her dad, a bicycle delivery driver, was killed in a tragic street accident. Then her mom, consumed by grief and depression, withdrew from the world, lost her job and June became the de facto caregiver for her 6-year-old sister, Maybelle. And now June’s family has been evicted from their Chinatown apartment and relocated to Huey House, a shelter in the South Bronx for families experiencing homelessness.

At first, everything at Huey House seems strange and disorienting, including the hourslong bus ride to school and the practical jokes played by longtime shelter residents Tyrell and Jeremiah. The final straw is the news that June can’t play her beloved viola at the shelter. But June quickly starts to see how the shelter’s residents help one another and how kindness can manifest in surprising ways. And she discovers that Tyrell, whose brash exterior belies a sensitive heart, a fear of abandonment and a love for classical music, might share some of the same dreams that she does.

Author Karina Yan Glaser is beloved for her critically acclaimed middle grade series about the Vanderbeekers, a large and loving family in Harlem. As she does in those books, Glaser infuses this standalone novel with sweetness and optimism (softhearted Maybelle and her overwhelming love for dogs and other animals is especially appealing) while acknowledging the complexities of her characters’ lives.

In an author’s note that opens the book, Glaser describes how the seeds of A Duet for Home were planted when she worked at a family housing shelter similar to Huey House 20 years ago. She incorporates a real-life policy initiative—a drive to quickly rehouse families experiencing homelessness in inadequate, unsafe facilities without sufficient support systems—into the novel as well. Within the story, Glaser brilliantly illustrates the drawbacks of this policy from a child’s point of view and shows the power of political action through her characters’ responses.

June and Tyrell are memorable and inspiring protagonists, and Glaser surrounds them with a cast of well-developed secondary characters. In addition to Maybelle and Jeremiah, there are also supportive grown-ups such as Ms. Gonzalez (aka Ms. G), the bighearted social worker who knows every resident’s favorite food so she can surprise them with their favorite dishes, and Domenika, the lovably prickly viola teacher next door.

As its title suggests, A Duet for Home is also suffused with music. Glaser even helpfully provides a list of all the compositions referenced throughout at the end of the novel. A Duet for Home portrays how an appreciation for music and a desire to make the world more beautiful can give all young people—and perhaps especially the most vulnerable—a way to believe in themselves.

Karina Yan Glaser infuses A Duet for Home with sweetness and optimism while acknowledging the complexities of her characters’ lives.

Young readers who love to paint, sing or write—or just enjoy reading about the fascinating lives of creative people—will find plenty of inspiration in these three biographical books about Black women who made their marks in the fields of visual arts, music and literature.

Ablaze With Color

Author Jeanne Walker Harvey was inspired to write the picture book biography Ablaze With Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas after learning that the Obamas were going to display Thomas’ painting “Resurrection” in the White House. The first work of art by a Black woman to receive this honor, the painting was given a prominent place in the mansion’s Old Family Dining Room.

Harvey traces Thomas’ early life as a creative, inquisitive child in 1890s Georgia, where her parents hosted salons for intellectuals to make up for the lack of vibrant educational possibilities in the segregated South. Later, Thomas’ family moved north to find greater opportunities for their daughter, and Thomas began a long career as an art educator in Washington, D.C.

Remarkably, Thomas didn’t pick up a paintbrush and begin focusing on her own art until she was around 70 years old. Her dynamic paintings, many inspired by space exploration and the solar system, were quickly celebrated and selected for exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As the book’s title suggests, Harvey’s text celebrates Thomas’ lifelong love of color, and the book’s illustrations by Loveis Wise reinforce that theme. Every page is full of rich shades of gold, green, red and other saturated hues. Some of the illustrations envision scenes from Thomas’ life, while others pay homage to Thomas’ own artistic style and inspirations.

Ablaze With Color will encourage readers to learn more about Thomas’ amazing works of art. The book’s back matter includes a timeline that juxtaposes significant events in Thomas’ life against notable developments in American history. A list of museums with online and in-person exhibits of Thomas’ work will make it easy for readers to see more of her paintings for themselves.

Sing, Aretha, Sing!

Author Hanif Abdurraqib is best known as an award-winning poet and cultural critic thanks to his writing for adults, but in Sing, Aretha, Sing! Aretha Franklin, “Respect,” and the Civil Rights Movement, he turns his attention to a picture book biography of one of the most celebrated voices of the 20th century: Aretha Franklin.

Abdurraqib begins by discussing Franklin’s roots and the time she spent singing gospel in her father’s church. He devotes most of the book, however, to tracing Franklin’s connections to politics. She joined Martin Luther King Jr. on a civil rights campaign tour, and her song “Respect” was widely adopted as an anthem by the civil rights and women’s movements. Readers who are only familiar with the song from the radio or at karaoke nights might be surprised to learn about how the song galvanized civil rights marchers even as the struggle for Black rights grew increasingly dangerous: “Sometimes the right words and the right sound could open a window and let a small bit of freedom through.”

Ashley Evans’ digital artwork depicts key moments from both Franklin’s life and the history of the civil rights movement with bright colors and simple lines. She also illustrates more contemporary scenes, such as a Black Lives Matter march and a young Black musician at a keyboard, to demonstrate how Franklin’s influence continues to inspire present-day artists and activists.

While young readers might only be familiar with Franklin through her most famous songs, Sing, Aretha, Sing! positions her as a pivotal figure in American popular music, one whose political and cultural influence goes far beyond her familiar hits.

Star Child

An inventive biography of the influential science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler is intended for older readers but touches many of the same themes as Harvey’s and Abdurraquib’s books.

Author Ibi Zoboi focuses primarily on Butler’s early life. She describes Butler’s childhood during the 1950s and her initial creative pursuits, and traces intersections between Butler’s experiences and broader historical events and political and cultural issues of the time, from the Cold War and the space race to the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Zoboi also explores the obstacles Butler faced as she grew up and started writing. Butler contended with structural racism and grappled with a literary and educational establishment that didn’t take Black women’s writing seriously, particularly the kind of science fiction and fantasy literature that Butler was creating.

Zoboi, who is best known for her award-winning young adult novel American Street, alternates straightforward biographical narration with sections written in verse that utilize a variety of poetic devices to delve deeper into the factors that shaped Butler’s life and work. The book also includes numerous archival photographs and documents as well as quotations from Butler’s writing and interviews.

Zoboi movingly highlights the importance of empathy in Butler’s work and her role as a mentor and source of inspiration for countless other Black creatives—including Zoboi herself. The book’s final chapter describes Zoboi’s interactions with Butler over the years, from a book signing in Brooklyn, New York, to time spent as her student at the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in Seattle, Washington. This personal connection makes Star Child even more compelling. Although readers of this biography might be a little too young to read Butler’s work for themselves just yet, Zoboi ensures that they won’t forget her name.

Three books about Black women who left their mark on the arts offer plenty of inspiration for young creative visionaries.

High school junior Becca has always been bookish and smart, the kind of girl no one really notices. So on her very first day at Piedmont High School, she’s surprised when she draws the attention of beautiful Marley and her megacool friends, and she can’t quite believe their interest in her is authentic. Granted, Arianna can be a little blunt, and Amanda and Marley make not-so-subtle attempts to tweak Becca’s personal style to match their own, but they all seem to genuinely enjoy spending time with her. But when they take her to a party, Becca realizes in the most disconcerting way possible that Marley’s clique isn’t a squad—it’s more like a pack.

Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall upends many classic werewolf tropes in Squad, her first graphic novel. Werewolves are typically hairy and muscular, but they’re also governed by the full moon, and Tokuda-Hall imbues them with feminine power. Squad is a revenge narrative and a quasi fable about consent, but beneath its supernatural premise, it’s also a classic teen drama that will disrupt readers’ assumptions about fashion-conscious teenage girls.

Illustrator Lisa Sterle’s bold, energetic artwork perfectly complements the novel’s themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and the possibility of love. Her palette ranges from muted jewel tones in nighttime scenes to rich reds as bright and bold as blood. Her depictions of the werewolves are particularly skillful, as she uses color and shape to connect each girl’s human and wolf forms. The book’s layouts are varied and dynamic, with small panel groupings occasionally interrupted by spreads that highlight moments of drama and emotion. Be forewarned: Squad’s most violent panels are fairly graphic, and these scenes of uncontained carnage can seem especially jarring when juxtaposed against the candy-colored, meticulously polished personas that the girls project in their human forms.

Squad is a story of dramatic contrasts and surprising transformations, and both its words and images underscore the notion that underneath their carefully cultivated surfaces, teenage girls might not be precisely what they seem.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creation of Squad.

After she attends a party with the coolest girls in school, Becca realizes they’re not a squad—they’re more like a pack.

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