From inauspicious beginnings, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) became a pioneering photographer and filmmaker as well as a novelist, composer and poet. In this picture-book biography, Caldecott honoree Carole Boston Weatherford focuses on Parks’s photographic career, particularly the images he took in Washington in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Parks’s accomplishments are especially remarkable given the limited choices he faced as a young African American male. (A teacher in his Kansas elementary school told Parks and his classmates, “You’ll all wind up porters and waiters.”) But after working as a piano player, porter and waiter, he bought a camera, taught himself to take pictures and transformed his life. As a government photographer assigned to Washington, he documented the segregation of the city — and with a single photograph of a cleaning woman named Ella Watson, got the world to take notice. Weatherford’s succinct text and Jamey Christoph’s stylized, muted-color illustrations convey Parks’s vibrant talent while delivering an enlightening perspective on the past.
Love can be a prickly proposition, as young Cardell the coyote discovers. He’s got lots of it in his world: a “perfectly good mama and . . . daddy” who adore him, even if they no longer live together. Plus he’s got a “perfectly nice” stepmama and a “perfectly cute” stepbrother on his daddy’s side. When Otis, the new neighbor, comes with a handful of ocotillo flowers and a bag of cactus candy to capture his mama’s heart, Cardell expects his mama to send Otis away, as she has with other suitors. Kathi Appelt’s story about how Otis wins the hearts of Mama and Cardell is gently humorous, a desert drawl flowing through the author’s words. From the paisley-red bandana endpapers to the small flowers blooming in the desert, Jill McElmurry’s warm, bright gouache illustrations offer an arid yet charming Southwest setting. Her coyotes are expressive and comical, a convincing mix of animal and people. Growly, endearing Cardell comes to know that love, families and friendships come in all kinds of shapes, often making room for more.
In “Inside Out & Back Again,” a National Book Award winner , Thanhha Lai told the riveting tale of a girl who flees Vietnam in 1975. In her new novel, her subject is a contemporary young American who returns to Vietnam to reconnect with her family there. Twelve-year-old Mai absorbs the country’s cultural norms (respect for elders, lack of privacy) and vivid sights, sounds and smells (“sweat and fruit and boiling oil and raw meat”) as she helps her grandmother discover what happened to her husband when he disappeared during the war. This quest provides the book’s momentum and tension, but readers will also enjoy mischievous Mai’s clandestine motorcycle rides, the banter with her teen translator and her budding friendship with a frog-loving cousin. Mai comes to better understand both herself and the quiet woman who raised seven children by herself and now joyously drags the girl into a spring rain to “catch memories” in a land where “nothing happens or everything happens.” This lively valentine of a novel may jumpstart questions in young readers about the people and places of their families’ past.
How the Photographer Captured Black and White America
By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Albert Whitman. $16.99.
Ages 6 to 8.
WHEN OTIS COURTED MAMA
By Kathi Appelt. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99. Ages 4 to 7.
By Thanhha Lai
HarperCollins. $16.99. Ages 8 to 10.