Biographical children’s picture books do not tend to be my favorites. Most are informative, sure, and some are even well-executed enough to get across why the individual’s life was interesting and/or important, but there’s usually a certain dryness to the approach. Like children’s history, biography for kids needs a spark; often the concept behind that spark involves, shall we say, literary license, as in Jonah Winter and Barry Blitt’s wonderful (but not, um, entirely historical) The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven, and Lane Smith’s equally great (and equally imaginative) John, Paul, George & Ben.
But Jeanette Winter (mother of the aforementioned Jonah) has been at this for a while. She’s written and illustrated many biographical children’s books in her long, illustrious career (including ones on J. S. Bach, Georgia O’Keefe, and Beatrix Potter), and she knows exactly how to go about it: storytelling. The Watcher, her lovely new picture book about Jane Goodall, is both a factual retelling of the primatologist’s life and a perfectly conceived storybook.
But this book’s storytelling isn’t limited to the text, as concise and informative (and factual!) as it is about Goodall’s life and work. Winter’s bright, colorful illustrations, in a sort of American folk-art style, carry the narrative and especially the characterizations forward on their own, imbuing the individual chimps Goodall gets to know with personality. The expressiveness she gives her drawings of David Graybeard, the first chimp to strike up a “friendship” with Goodall, make the progression of their relationship through the years—marked by visible signs of aging in both—all the more moving.
My two-year-old son can’t get enough of The Watcher; while I suspect that he doesn’t particularly care too much at the moment that it’s about a living person, we like that he’s being exposed, effortlessly, to the real life’s work of this great scientist. (It’s especially nice that the scientist in question is female, establishing that possibility as in no way strange.) As a bonus, the subject is of more than sufficient interest to our six-year-old as well, so it’s a book we can read with both boys despite their age difference.
Photos by Whitney Webster
From You Know, For Kids