Austin authors' nonfiction picture books inspire hope
Transforming what’s wrong in the world into something better is one of the highest goals we can have for our children.
Two new nonfiction picture books from Austin authors serve as ideal inspiration. Chris Barton’s “All of a Sudden and Forever” (Carolrhoda/Lerner, $19.99) dives into the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing with its exploration of healing and remembrance. And “Grandfather Gandhi” co-author Bethany Hegedus celebrates the 39th president in “Hard Work, But It’s Worth It: The Life of Jimmy Carter” (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $17.99).
A deft and engaging researcher, Barton has chronicled a wide range of subjects in his previous nonfiction picture books, from World War I “Dazzle Ships” to iconic lawmaker Barbara Jordan in the award-winning “What Do You Do With a Voice Like That?” “All of a Sudden and Forever” starts off with an age-appropriate retelling of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, but it quickly moves into the many emotions that came afterward.
Barton traces an arc of hope in prose simple enough for early picture book readers to grasp and evocative enough to grip older readers. He highlights the Survivor Tree, an American elm that somehow escaped the blast, and how families took seedlings from the tree to plant their own versions.
“In front yards and backyards where everyday comings and goings mixed with memories from before the bombings, those seedlings took root and started to grow,” he writes.
“Sometimes those elm trees were reminders of loss. Sometimes they were sources of comfort. Sometimes they were both.”
Nicole Xu’s stark, linear illustrations evoke both the horror of the attack and the quiet beauty of connection, echoing and amplifying Barton’s text.
Barton’s focus makes “All of a Sudden and Forever” a distinctive chronicle of the bombing, but also a window into how healing can happen after any tragedy. As well, he underscores how crucial it is to honor such an event with remembrance. Like all the best picture books, this one works on multiple levels, and it deserves remembrance as well. (Ages 7 and older; includes author’s and illustrator’s notes as well as resources and snippets on interview subjects.)
Bethany Hegedus’ “Grandfather Gandhi” picture books, co-authored with Gandhi grandson Arun Gandhi, introduced the human side of the legendary Indian leader to scores of young readers. She profiled “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee in “Alabama Spitfire.”
Her newest subject is Jimmy Carter, who rose from washing cotton and farming peanuts in Georgia to occupy the White House.
Hegedus relates how Carter, celebrated for his humanitarian work post-presidency, recognized injustices in the world around him before he had the political clout to change them.
As a child in 1930s Georgia, his family often worshipped at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose bishop was a friend of Jimmy’s father. Jimmy and his best friend A.D. had to sit in different parts of the movie theater, and in one particularly striking passage, A.D. insists that Jimmy go through a farm gate before him.
“Jimmy knew A.D. wasn’t afraid of him but of any other white folks watching who might attack him for ‘not knowing his place.’ … None of it was right. None of it was fair,” Hegedus writes.
As an adult, Jimmy refused to join the White Citizens’ Council, a local group that opposed integrated schools. “I say to you quite frankly the time for racial discrimination is over,” he declared from the podium when he won the Georgia gubernatorial race in 1970.
While his words highlight how long America has struggled with issues of race, Carter’s work in and after the White House continued to center justice and equality, Hegedus shows. She highlights how he brokered meetings between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, as well as his post-presidential establishment of the Carter Center and his time building homes for the poor through Habitat for Humanity.
Though “Hard Work” is for young readers, Hegedus still steers clear of hagiography. She notes that Carter’s bid for a second term in the White House failed due to energy woes and the Iran hostage crisis.
Even so, his lifelong work ethic shines through. In an author’s note that closes the book, Hegedus includes other details from his life and concludes with this simple, affecting coda: “Jimmy Carter is a hero of mine. I hope he is now one of yours, too.” In that spirit, Hegedus is donating $5 from each sale of “Hard Work” to the Austin chapter of Habitat for Humanity, up to $500, through March 1. To participate, share a shot of your purchased book on social media with the hashtag #HardWorkJimmyCarter. (Ages 4-8)
Who’s coming to BookPeople this month?
Saturday afternoons in February are for author visits at BookPeople, starting today. Austin authors Katie Jaffe and Jennifer Lawson introduce young readers to the magic of flight in their new picture book “Fly, Fly Again” (Greenleaf, $15.95); the duo will read from and sign the book at 2 p.m. Saturday … Two young women trade lives to save their country from war in the young adult fantasy “Belle Révolte” (Sourcebooks Fire, $17.99) from Linsey Miller, who appears at 2 p.m. Feb. 8 … “Lucy and the String” author Vanessa Roeder is back with a new picture book, “The Box Turtle” (Dial, $17.99). The Austin writer explores the confidence to be yourself in this sweet story, featuring a turtle who uses a cardboard box to shield himself since he was born without a shell. All three events are free, but you must buy an author’s book at BookPeople in order to get it signed. Visit bookpeople.com/event or call 512-472-5050 for more information.