PB Biographies: Evelyn the Adventurous Entomologist
I’ve been saying for a long time that, someday, I want to write picture book biographies. In a recent Duh! moment, I realized that isn’t going to happen until and unless I get serious about reading and dissecting them. So I’m starting a new series on my blog featuring picture book biographies and my thoughts about why and how they work. I’m starting the series with a book I love and that happens to be very handy, sitting right there on one of my picture book shelves. That book is Evelyn the Adventurous Entomologist: The True Story of a World-Traveling Bug Hunter, written by Christine Evans and illustrated by Yasmin Imamura.
Full disclosure, I met Christine at an SCBWI event and picked up her book to browse through it. I was already loving it when I came to these words,
Many years later, Evelyn applied to veterinary college. She longed to help sick animals.
And the next page:
However, it was the early 1900s. Women couldn’t vote. They rarely went to college. And they certainly weren’t allowed to be vets.
Then and there, I bought two copies–one for me and one for my mom. My mom also wanted to go to vet school and, in the 1950s, but was told by a school counselor that might not be possible. But vet schools had just started to admit women. My mom knew it wouldn’t be easy. But she “went anyway.”
Fifty years earlier, Evelyn Cheesman wasn’t able to vet school. But many, many other times she was told she couldn’t go somewhere, but–in a lovely repetition of phrase in Evans’ book–“…Evelyn went anyway.”
One of the things I love about this book is the way Evans doesn’t try to force the facts or her language. She uses “Evelyn went anyway” when it’s accurate–when Evelyn did go. In places where Evelyn was unable to pursue a specific dream, Evans shows us the other ways in which Evelyn persisted, pushed forward. In the book, Evelyn says yes to every opportunity and, when one isn’t presenting itself, she makes her own. She dives into everything she tries, making it her own with creativity, hard work, and–I think–a love of being in charge of her own world. By making clear the many bumps in Evelyn’s path, Evans shows us beautifully the ways in which Evelyn got past those bumps–sometimes walking around, sometimes climbing (literally), and sometimes pivoting in a new direction. But she never once stops moving forward.
Evans also does a fantastic job of weaving in the perfect amount of information about the time in which Evelyn lived. The focus is always on Evelyn–the things she chooses to do, the adventures she takes, the way she seems (to me) to always be on the lookout for something new she can learn, something new she can explore. But mixed into Evelyn’s story are bite-sized tidbits about Evelyn’s world. We don’t need this context to know that Evelyn was special, but the contrast of her actions with what she was supposed to do, allowed to do, highlights the power of her personality and the strength of her commitment to herself and her dreams.
A note about the illustrations: I really love the art in the book. The colors are all earth tones, evoking Evelyn’s love of the outdoors. Evelyn’s energy, focus, and action are brought out in every illustration of her. And somehow, as we see Evelyn across various ages, she is always Evelyn. Beautiful.
I would give this book to any child as an introduction to picture book biographies, but most especially to a child who sees the world in a slightly different way than those around them or to a child who needs to know that stubbornness can be a strength. I would also, of course, give this book to anyone (child or adult) who loves bugs.