Nonfiction Monday: Picture Book Biographies

As I was writing reviews for Bad News for Outlaws and Keep On! this morning, I realized just how much these two nonfiction picture books have in common.

  • Bass Reeves’ and Matthew Henson’s lives began at the time of the US Civil War.
  • Neither man had formal education, but were very learned men.
  • Both men immersed themselves in cultures that were “foreign” to them.
  • Both men had remarkable, noteworthy careers … but I had never learned about them.
  • The stories offer not only a biographical study, but exemplify integrity, perseverance, and maximizing your talents.
  • These incredible books don’t seem to have generated much buzz.

After reading these books, I thumbed back through them to grab more facts. The stories are fascinating, and I kept wondering why I had never heard about Bass Reeves or Matthew Henson. Frankly, I feel like my knowledge of history falls short of where it needs to be. Now, I will be looking for more information about them.

Bad News for OutlawsBad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal
written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Published by Carolrhoda Books, 2009
Audience (Reading Level): 7 to 12 (6.7 Flesch Kincaid)

Colonel George Reeves was so impressed with the marksmanship skills of his young slave Bass that he would take him hunting and enter him in shooting contests. He even took Bass to fight beside him in the Civil War. After Bass got into an argument with Colonel Reeves and struck him, he had no choice but to run. Bass eventually settled in Indian Territory. At the end of the Civil War he bought some land in Arkansas and settled down. When outlaws started using Indian Territory for their hideouts – and wreaking havoc – it was time for the government to step in. Bass was deputized as a US Marshal not only for his skill as a marksman, but because of his knowledge of  Indian territory and it’s people. He captured many wanted men and women, even earning their respect.

This is a fascinating story. The book opens with Marshal Reeves killing one of the most notorious outlaws in the Old West, and then steps back to present his life using a time line.  Then, it transitions to a more descriptive, anecdotal format as it talks about Reeves and his accomplishments.

The presentation is impeccable. First, the author created subtle chapters by grouping periods of time. Many of the pages are framed giving them the look of the Wanted posters of movie fame. Last but not least, the illustrations create a gallery of paintings, like an art show.

This is an exceptional book, not only for introducing all of us to someone we should know about, but also in the way it offers kids a first-hand example of how to live an honorable life – no matter what circumstances present themselves. I’d love to be part of classroom discussions about whether they would arrest their son! Would their parents arrest them?

Keep OnKeep On! The Story of Matthew Henson Co-Discoverer of the North Pole
written by Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2009
Audience (Reading Level):  6 to 12 (4.0 Flesch Kincaid)

Matthew Henson lived to explore. He was born in 1866, at a time when young black boys were lucky to have any formal education, much less see the world. He started to learn the trades of the sea at age 13, and Captain Childs offered him an education he could never get in school. After Captain Childs died, he met Robert E. Peary, who asked him to join his expedition to Greenland. Ultimately, after multiple attempts, Henson and Peary reached the North Pole.

I had picked this book to read with my daughter, hoping that the dogsled on the front would grab her interest. Within a few pages she was totally into it, and asking lots of questions. The author incorporated journal entries from both Henson and Peary, which really added dimension to our discussions. For example, there were turns of phrase and words she didn’t understand, so she’d ask me to stop and we’d discover them together.

The story itself is PACKED with details, but they are well presented for the audience. The story is very understandable, but does not talk down to them, either. I love how it pushed my daughter to learn new words and understand idioms. The journal entries and line-drawn illustrations offer a great complement to the story. Although my daughter wasn’t interested in the Explore! section at the back, I found it as fascinating as the main story … almost it’s own book. There is no emphasis within the story of the prejudices and slights that Henson suffered, yet these are realities that are important in understanding the magnitude of his accomplishments.

I would highly recommend this story for all kids, but particulary kids who are interested in science (and the scientific process) and geography.  Although not as prominent in this book as in Bad News for Outlaws, there are themes of perseverance and integrity.

When I was looking for other book reviews for these books, I was shocked to see they had not been reviewed on either Amazon or It is good to see, though, that they are being celebrated in the blogosphere.

Bad News for Outlaws
The Brown Bookshelf – Author Interview
Just One More Book!

Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson
Kiss the Book!
Through the Looking Glass Children’s Book Reviews
Young Adult (and Kids Book) Central

Today’s Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Bookends.