Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen

Hopkinson, Deborah. Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen. New York: Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018.

“Nothing ever fatigues me but doing what I do not like.”

“The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Jane Austen was born in England over two hundred years ago. But her novels still entertain people all around the world. This biography tells the story of how she grew up to become a famous writer. The style and size of the text, the detailed ink and watercolour illustrations by Qin Leng, and the layout of the pages all combine to create a delightful picture book highly recommended for curious readers 9 to 15 years old.

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A list of classic novels for all ages

Deborah Hopkinson has written many wonderful picture books and novels. You can find more by typing ‘Hopkinson’ into the search box on the right hand side at the top.

 

The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything

Alary, Laura. The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything: The Story of Maria Mitchell. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2022.
Two hundred years ago on Nantucket, a little girl grew up with parents who believed both boys and girls should be educated. Her father was a schoolteacher and an astronomer and her mother had been a librarian, so it is not surprising that Maria and her nine siblings were encouraged to learn and think for themselves. Maria, a daydreamer, grew up to become a teacher and a librarian who loved challenges. When the King of Denmark offered a prize to the first person who could find a new comet, Maria determinedly looked through her telescope night after night until she spied a new comet. She won! Now she was famous and was soon invited to be a professor of astronomy. Maria spent the rest of her life encouraging her students to explore the skies and ask questions. Additional biographical information and a bibliography accompany this picture book cheerfully illustrated by Ellen Rooney. Highly recommended for readers 8 to 14 years old who enjoy true stories about historical figures.

P.S. The author’s combination of short and long sentences – and sentence fragments – creates a lovely rhythm for reading aloud. So lovely that it almost seems a shame to read the story silently. But the style of font is unfortunately not so lovely: the print is too serious and too small for the pictures. But that’s a minor fault compared to the beauty of the illustrations and the flow of the words. If you want a happy story that encourages patient persistence, read this book.

Another picture book about an astronomer…

McCully, Emily Arnold. Caroline’s Comets: A True Story. New York: Holiday House, 2017.
Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750. Her father and brothers were musicians but she – being a girl – was kept busy doing housework. Everything changed when she was 22 years old. She joined her older brother in England and became a professional singer and then an assistant to her brother, who had become an astronomer for King George III. Later, she also earned a salary as an astronomer for the king.  Before she died in 1848, she had discovered 8 comets and become a star among scientists.
Quotations from Caroline’s diary are embedded in this incredible story of the first woman to discover a comet. The gently old-fashioned pen, ink, and watercolour illustrations enhance this picture book biography for readers 9 years old and up.

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One Million Trees

Balouch, Kristen. One Million Trees: a True Story. New York: Holiday House, 2022.
This is the true story of how the author – when she was ten years old – spent a summer planting trees. She and her parents and her sisters flew from California to B.C. to join a crew planting seedlings between the stumps of trees cut down by loggers. Camping in the wilderness, they worked for forty days until they had planted one million trees. This intriguing picture book – filled with informative details – is highly recommended for readers 7 to 12 years old. Or for anyone curious about the life of a tree planter.

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Maryam’s Magic

Reid, Megan. Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2021.
Are you a numbers person? Do you enjoy working with equations? Or are you a word person? Do you like reading and writing? Or do you like both mathematics and stories?
Maryam preferred stories. Until – when she was 12 years old – she discovered geometry. Now she could turn numbers into shapes! And shapes made stories! This inspiring picture book biography tells the story of the first woman and first Iranian to win the prestigious Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Additional facts and references are provided at the end. Recommended for readers 7 to 11 years old.

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The People’s Painter

Levinson, Cynthia. The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021.
Ben’s first memory was of drawing. At home, in his little Lithuanian village, he longed to draw everything he could see. But he also cared about justice. After his father escaped from imprisonment by Czar Nicholas II, the family moved to America in 1906, where Ben continued to draw pictures. By the time he died in 1969, he had become known as “the people’s painter,” an artist who drew attention to injustices in society. This sophisticated picture book – with full-page illustrations by Evan Turk and a lengthy afterward with additional information – is highly recommended for readers 9 years old and up.
P.S. References to people and events in American history may be unfamiliar to some readers, so this story would be ideal as a read-aloud and discussion.
P.P.S. I’m partial to picture book biographies. They let me learn about someone by reading a short story that gets to the heart of someone’s character. There are so many books to read and so many topics to learn about that I don’t always have time to read long books. Picture books can be just right, even for adults.

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Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat

Rockliff, Mara. Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat. New York: Beach Lane Books, 2021.
Kiwifruit, spaghetti squash, sugar snap peas. Those foods are now common in grocery stores. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s, a woman in California changed people’s eating habits. She started her own produce company and introduced buyers to purple potatoes, artichokes, and habanero peppers. Blood oranges, Asian pears, and seedless watermelons. Frieda Caplan was an adventurer and happily brought the world to her customers. This informative picture book – with an afterword providing more details – will appeal to listeners and readers 6 to 12 years old.

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Reflections from Them Days

Winters, Nellie. Reflections from Them Days: A Residential School Memoir from Nunatsiavut. Iqaluit, Nunavut: Qinuisaarniq, an imprint of Inhabit Education Books Inc., 2020.
In 1949, when Nellie was eleven years old, she was sent to boarding school in Nain, Labrador on the east coast of Canada. In this 51-page autobiography, transcribed and edited by Erica Oberndorfer, she matter-of-factly shares her memories – both sad and happy, heart-breaking and humorous – in a voice truly her own. In the forward, she explains that we are all on earth to help each other and make our world “more wonderful.” This true story – illustrated by the author – will help readers see another life, another perspective, from a time not so long ago in Canada’s history. Highly recommended for readers 10 years old and up. 

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Picture book memoirs