Friday, August 1, 2014

Albert Einstein and Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Picture Book Biographies

Biographies in picture book format are a weakness of mine. I think it's the combination of art and true facts, plus they are short. Because these books are usually only about 30 pages long, I know that I can spend a leisurely time appreciating them, and still get through the whole thing in one sitting. For me, they signal a mood of relaxed enjoyment.

I recently read two delightful examples back to back: On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky and The Pilot and the little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery by Peter Sis.

Radinsky's exuberant illustrations in On a Beam of Light radiate joyful energy. His black ink lines are expressively untidy and the rich gouache colours do not stay neatly inside the lines. The paper is light brown, speckled with fibers, giving it a homespun look.
Important lines of text are highlighted in red. (On a Beam of Light. Berne & Radunsky)

Berne has selected details about Einstein's life that will make the most impression on children. For example, when Einstein grew up, he chose specific clothes for thinking. He refused to ever wear socks. Einstein never spoke before age two, and hardly said a word before age three. When he did finally speak, he was full of questions.

"So many questions that some of his teachers told him he was a disruption to his class. They said he would never amount to anything unless he learned to behave like all the other students.
But Albert didn't want to be like the other students.
He wanted to discover the hidden mysteries in the world."

Readers can go on to discover more about Einstein through Berne's notes and resource list at the end.

Even though Peter Sis has a very different style from Radunsky, I was struck by the way they both showed their subjects as babies, floating in space:
Baby Einstein (On a Beam of Light. Berne & Radunsky)

Baby Saint-Exupery (The Pilot and the Little Prince. Sis)
In The Pilot and the Little Prince, Peter Sis uses medium to light colours, mostly golds and heavenly blues. He avoids black. His shading is made up of lots of minute lines and dots. There are whimsical details like the winged horse above. Continents on a map and mountains seen from a plane are shown with facial features. Pictorial elements on a page are frequently grouped in medallions with tidbits of additional text. It's like a treasure hunt to find everything on each page.

Young Saint-Exupery attempted to fly with his bicycle. (detail from The Pilot and the Little Prince. Sis)
There is a great deal more information in this book about Antoine de Saint-Exupery than in the one about Einstein. Older children, teens and adults will all find much to appreciate. Sis packs a lot into his pages! What makes the biggest impression is Saint-Exupery's lifelong love of flight, in spite of numerous crash landings. There are details about the history of aviation as well as Saint-Exupery's writing career and his service in World War II. And I learned a surprising lot about the earliest airmail service.

Peter Sis has written and illustrated many more wonderful books, including The Tree of Life (about Charles Darwin); Starry Messenger (about Galileo); and The Wall, his autobiography about growing up in Czechoslovakia. I've previously reviewed his retelling of a thirteenth-century Persian poem, The Conference of Birds.

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