Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock

Bailey, Linda. Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock. Toronto: Tundra, 2022.
Everyone knows the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. But who is Arthur Conan Doyle? A quiet man who lives alone and stays indoors writing stories? No. Definitely not. Arthur Doyle loves sports – all sports – and is a superb storyteller. When he completes his schooling, he travels the world as a ship’s medical officer before coming back to Scotland to open his own practice. While he waits for patients to arrive, he writes stories, all of which are rejected by publishers. No one wants them. Until he writes about a detective, and Sherlock Holmes is born! (Arthur also marries twice, has five children, does more travelling, and does all he can to make sure people are not mistreated.) This biography – written in present tense – is a delight to read! It flows beautifully: perfect for reading aloud to younger students, excellent for teaching style to older students. And the liveliness of the writing and the humour of the illustrations (by Isabelle Follath) make it fun for any age. Outstanding!

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Just Like Beverly

Conrad, Vicki. Just Like Beverly. Seattle, Washington: Little Bigfoot, an imprint of Sasquatch Books, 2019.
Runaway Ralph. Ramona the Pest. Henry and Ribsy. Most readers know these characters so well that they almost seem like real people in our memories. But who was their creator? Who was Beverly Cleary? A little farm girl who didn’t like reading and wasn’t good at it until her second grade teacher kindly helped her learn. Then her mother gave her a book with characters who were funny and had adventures, who reminded her of her own life, and she finally discovered the joy of reading. But how did she become a writer? This picture book biography – appended with six pages of additional information and a timeline – is cheerfully recommended for everyone who has enjoyed Cleary’s wonderful classics of children’s literature.

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A Life Electric

Westergaard, Azadeh. A Life Electric: The Story of Nikola Tesla. New York: Viking, 2021.
When people think of a Tesla, they think of a car that is very expensive. But who was the real Tesla? Was he wealthy?
Born in 1856 in a small village high in the mountains of what is now Croatia, young Nikola loved animals and books and coming up with inventions. When he was twenty-six, he he had a new idea: a motor that could send electric currents forward and backward along a wire. We now know that as alternating current and Nikola Tesla was the person who invented the AC induction motor. But even though he moved to America and patented many electrical inventions, he never became wealthy. Why? This picture book biography – with extensive additional information and a bibliography – provides the answer. It tells the story of a man with an incredible mind who became known for his kindness towards all living creatures. Highly recommended for readers 7 years old and up.

More books to expand your general knowledge

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The Crayon Man

Biebow, Natascha. The Crayon Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
Coloured oil pastel pencils were invented in 1834 by the Staedtler company. Coloured art pencils were invented in 1924 by Faber-Castell and Caran d’Ache. In between those two dates – in 1903 – coloured wax crayons were invented by Edwin Binney, a man who loved colour. Binney had already invented an inexpensive gray slate pencil and a white chalk pencil that wasn’t dusty. He’d invented a wax crayon, but it was black and he wanted colour. So he and a team experimented using ground up rocks and minerals. They tried adding clay and wax. They tried heating the mixtures and letting them slowly cool. Finally, they were ready with a box of eight: blue, brown, green, orange, red, violet, yellow, and – of course – black. Crayola crayons became famous!
Supplemented by a two-page illustrated step-by-step explanation of how crayons are still made in Pennsylvania, a one-page biography of additional information about Binney, and a bibliography for curious readers, this picture book is happily recommended for readers six to eleven years old. 

P.S. As a source of information for students doing research to expand their general knowledge, this book is great. As a read-aloud for young children, it will still be interesting but the small boxes of additional information in a smaller font on six of the pages disrupt the flow of the story. I wish that the author had found a way to either include the information in the main text or put it in an appendix. I also wish the designer of the book had chosen a more cheerful font for the story. But otherwise, this is a wonderful biography to encourage readers to be curious about the everyday objects all around them. 

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A way to use picture books with students in grades 6 to 8

Do You Remember?

Smith, Sydney. Do You Remember? Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2023.
How do we hold on to the ones we love once they are gone? By remembering them. By sharing our memories with the people who are still with us. By recalling events that once seemed insignificant but now have become precious. This deeply touching picture book by an award-winning author and illustrator tells the story of a young boy remembering his father. Snuggled up together with his mother in a new apartment, the two of them quietly recall a picnic, a birthday, a move to a new city. Softly coloured illustrations – sometimes with no words – help to tell a story of loss and resilience for readers five years old and up. Most highly recommended.

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Otis & Peanut

Hrab, Naseem. Otis & Peanut. Toronto: Owlkids Books, 2023.
Otis and Peanut, a guinea pig and a mole rat, join the pantheon of fictional best friends in three little stories told in graphic novel format. They go shopping together. They play on the swings together. They remember happy times with their friend Pearl and talk about their sadness now that she’s gone. They encourage each other and learn how to find joy in life again. A wonderful book – with a recipe for baked potatoes at the end – for readers seven to ten years old. 

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Small in the City

Smith, Sydney. Small in the City. Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2019.
The best picture books have illustrations that are an integral part of the story. The best stories let you feel what it is like to be in someone else’s situation. Small in the City starts with four pages of pictures showing a bundled-up little boy on a bus before the first sentence appears – “I know what it is like…” – and continues as he walks along cold snowy streets, looking everywhere – in alleyways, in fenced yards with angry dogs, under bushes and up in bare-limbed trees, past a fishmonger’s and an empty lot, by a red brick church and a bench in a park – as the snow gets thicker and thicker. Finally, in a sign he’s posted on a light standard, we discover to whom he is talking: his cat, who is lost. The words in the story become fewer again and the illustrations become snowier until the hopeful words, “But I know you. You will be all right.”
The design of this book is brilliant. The style of the illustrations, the size and style of the font, the placement of the sentences on the pages are all perfect. The concept of this book is powerful: a main character imagining life from the point of view of someone else whom he loves. Readers will feel the desperate worry mixed with hope that everyone who has ever had a pet can all too vividly imagine. Most highly recommended for anyone who loves picture books (or cats).

More stories set in winter

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