By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Nate loves aliens and he really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes and he wants to fit in. What will he do? With the help of his two dads he makes a surprising decision.
I know Purim isn’t for a few more months, but I’ve been previewing books for my springtime storytimes. The Purim Superhero actually gets two points in it’s favor for two kinds of diversity. Which means it will definitely end up on my library shelf and should end up on yours. Nate’s family is both Jewish and has two dads. Woohoo!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Purim it’s a Jewish holiday celebrating Queen Esther and how she saved her people. Jewish children often dress up much like American Halloween. There’s a nice little note in the end of the book that will help explain it to non-Jewish kids, but it’s pretty evident from the story both what the holiday celebrates and what is done to celebrate.
I particularly love that the story is really about Nate struggling with wanting to go along with his friends, but to stay true to his interests, ideas, and desires. For that reason I’m going to be reading it in my superhero themed storytime. The book is about superheros and how kids love them, but it has a lot more depth to it and doesn’t feature a lot of the punch-‘em-up slapstick in the more traditional superhero books. I’m not opposed to that, but it isn’t what I want to read at storytime.
The two dads part of the book is also incredibly important. It’s mentioned and held up briefly as an example of how people can be different, but it isn’t an Issue with a capital I. It just is. When Nate struggles with wanting to be an alien and not superhero for Purim he asks his dads if sometimes they just want to be like everyone else and they respond by using the story of Purim to explain basically, “no, not really, embrace your differences”. Then the book moves on and, while you see the family together, no one mentions it again, no one apologizes or waxes poetic about loving how different they are.
As I said last week, I’m really looking to beef up our Jewish stories in the library both because having a religious diversity in our collection is important, but also because of a fair number of Jewish families in our population. I was particularly glad to find this gem of a book because it celebrates a lesser known (to Christians), but important holiday. I highly recommend this one for school libraries and for classroom libraries if you have other holiday books you bring out. The superhero theme will appeal to all those superhero-obsessed kids, Jewish or not. The message will appeal to educators and parents.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this powerful story of the building of the White House, Coretta Scott King Award winners Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper capture the emotion and toil that created this incredible structure, the home of our president. The White House was created by many hands, several of the slaves’, who will be remembered throughout history for their extraordinary feat. Many slaves were able to purchase their freedom after earning money from learning a trade through this work, which speaks to their unbelievable strength.
I don’t really remember where I came across this book, but I do remember I came across it shortly after all that ridiculous flack Michelle Obama got for mentioning in a speech that the White House was, in part, built by enslaved people. It seemed logical to me even though our educational system managed to miss teaching that fact. I guess it wasn’t logical for others?
Well, here’s a book to make sure your school does actually teach about who really built the White House and who profited from that work. While I think this book does a great job celebrating the hard work people, especially enslaved men and women, put into building the iconic building and how they were eventually able to use it to their advantage, I think it also does a really good job emphasizing that, by and large, the money and rewards went to the white owners of these enslaved people. There is a refrain “Slave hands saw/ twelve hours a day,/ but slave owners take/slave hands’ pay.” that repeats several times after longer passages that show the hard work everyone was putting into the building.
This is definitely a book that should be on school library shelves (public libraries too!). It counters the whitewashed and sanitized history we teach in schools. It shows pride in the work the enslaved and free blacks did. It’s history as it really was. Our second grade does a unit on African Americans, the Underground Railroad, and a little bit on slavery. It bugs me that, while the school claims to be progressive, we still only focus on African folktales (mostly written by white people in the 60s), slavery and the Civil Rights movement when studying anyone black (although with some new teachers this narrative is changing). I am aware that this is still a book that takes place during a time when Africans were enslaved in the US, but it’s a much less well known piece of that history. It does mention that there were free blacks and white immigrants who worked on the project as well. Again, something that isn’t well taught or known. This is the kind of book I want in my collection that counters the narrative of blacks only having two places in history (slavery and Civil Rights Movement).
While the text is important and interesting, the illustrations are also beautiful. Floyd Cooper always does amazing work. Here the illustrations have a hazy, tan wash over them that makes the work seem hot, dusty, and difficult. I love that Cooper gives each person a face to go with the names listed off in the text. It humanizes the people who worked on the White House.
The text is not long, nor is it graphic about slavery or anything that might be deemed too much for young children. I would say you could read this book down into first grade and up into the higher grades. There is a short author’s note at the end that adds a little more historical context that is fascinating and will stretch the picture book into the upper elementary grades. If your school has a library this should be in it. If any of your classes study the nascent nation, this needs to be in your collection. Make sure our kids are learning all our history.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Billie’s best friend thinks their neighbor, Ms. Marble, is crazy. Supposedly Ms. Marble has a hundred cats in her apartment and sings to them all day long. But when Billie spends an afternoon with her elderly neighbor, she discovers that Ms. Marble is actually a lot of fun! Ms. Marble introduces Billie to Lady Day, Ma Rainey, and other great blues singers. Together they dress up in antique clothes, and sing and dance to the blues. Then Ms. Marble shares an old secret she has been keeping in her heart. Billie learns that “some hurts stay inside you a mighty long time,” but the optimism of the blues triumphs in the end; Ms. Marble assures her young friend that “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”
Another excellent title from Zetta Elliott. Billie has the blues. It’s raining, her best friend is sick, her babysitter is running late and now she has to go with her mom to the community college for a few hours. Just as the elevator arrives on their floor, Ms. Marble, their elderly neighbor, pokes her head out to say hello. Billie grabs the opportunity and invites herself over to Ms. Marble’s apartment for the afternoon. Ms. Marble is delighted and the two spend an amazing afternoon listening to jazz, dressing up, and eating cookies.
The story was actually really cozy, despite the secret Ms. Marble shares (more on that in a minute). I think the story is a wonderful celebration of a cross-generational friendship developing. And I think readers will be able to discover all the great music and singers that Billie is introduced to that afternoon. I found Billie to be funny. She narrates inside her head and admits the times she is doing things her mother will find rude, like asking too many questions, using “ain’t”, and inviting herself over. But she also rather impishly says her mom isn’t there so she doesn’t care. That seemed like such a kid thing to do and made me chuckle. I think it also makes her really relatable to kids. They’ll have the same questions Billie does and be relieved she just up and asks.
I’m going to spoil the secret that Ms. Marble shares with Billie: her sweetheart was lynched in the South. The text does not specifically mention lynching, just that he was “taken”, but the illustration on the page shows a young Ms. Marble crying with a noose and gallows off in the distance. It’s certainly subtle and for some kids it won’t really register. Others may know exactly what happened. I suppose people’s tolerance for lynching in a book aimed at third through fifth graders will vary. Professionally, I don’t see any reason not to have the book on your shelf where families, children and teachers can make those decisions for themselves. Personally, I think children are very good at grasping difficult history, feeling compassion and tapping into their strong sense of social justice. (For those of you who think children don’t have a sense of social justice, go out to a playground at recess and pay attention.) Parents, teachers and librarians may need to be ready to answer questions that arise, but to me that’s the most important aspect of books like these. It opens up hard conversations, teaches history that isn’t usually discussed and validates children’s ability to really see the world as it is. There is a little bit of age appropriate information included in the back. It might seem radical to some conservative library populations (even my school would have parents that would object), but I guarantee you children will be able to handle it (yes, I’ve talked about this and worse with my five year old).
The book ends on a happy note and a hint at Billie and Ms. Marble’s friendship continuing. If you don’t have Elliott’s books on your shelves yet, what are you waiting for? They are exactly the kind of stuff we need to give to our kids. Run, don’t walk, to her website and/or Amazon and buy all of them now!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works with hilarious results!
In addition to working on getting visible/racial diversity into our library collection, I am also working on other forms of diversity including disability, family structure and, as is the case with this book, religious diversity. We used to have a lot of Jewish students in our school when I was a student there, but those numbers seem to have dropped somewhat. I don’t really know why, although I think it isn’t so much that there are fewer Jewish kids, just that we have more students snd from more diverse backgrounds so the percentage has dropped. Whatever the case, we are woefully low on books featuring Jewish families and children and, in comparison with Christian holidays, Jewish festivals and holidays. I would be happy if we never bought another Christmas book again.
As evidenced by the title The Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches is a story about a little Jewish town. Every full moon the town is plagued by twenty nine witches that fly around shrieking, frightening the animals, and terrorizing people’s dreams. No on in the town has ever been able to go out and look at the full moon because of the witches. One day, though, an old woman speaks to the rabbi. She wants to be able to see the full moon before she dies so the rabbi comes up with a plan to get rid of the witches. I won’t spoil the plot twist, because even I didn’t see it coming, but he very cleverly finds a way to rid the town of the witches forever. I was reminded of Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins in the trick the rabbi uses, so if you like that kind of cleverness this is well worth looking into.
I was really fortunate in that I found this for a dollar at our local Goodwill!! There were a number of other Jewish books that I was able to snag including Latkes, Latkes Good to Eat (one of my favorites to read at this time of year). Unfortunately it looks like this one is out of print, but if you can find it used for a few dollars it’s well worth adding to your collection. It would be a fun read around Halloween because of the witches or you could tie it in with a moon study because of the full moon. Because it’s out of print I won’t say it’s an absolute necessity, but if you can get it I recommend it. While it features a clearly Jewish town it does not focus on either a holiday or being overtly Jewish. It’s a nice backdrop to the story, like we so often see for Christian stories.
I think this particular books is best for that first-through-third grade range. There is some disagreement in our library on whether or not younger library patrons (i.e. Kindergarteners) can handle books with creepy characters like goblins and witches. The witches are described as scary and mean, but they don’t look particularly mean and they get their comeuppance in the end. My own five year old daughter (the perpetual tester, poor thing) enjoyed the story very much. Your mileage may vary with library patrons, students and children. The book also has a fair amount of text which requires some sitting still and listening. Again, mileage will vary. Finally, the illustrations are black, white, grey and light blue. They’re certainly engaging with lots to look at, but they aren’t bright and colorful. I think the palette enhances and emphasizes the moonlight that the villagers really want to see and enjoy, but it also makes looking at it a little less engaging for younger audiences. Again, mileage will vary and this is why I suggest first through third graders instead of younger audiences.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit. From Berry Gordy and his remarkable vision to the Civil Rights movement, from the behind-the-scenes musicians, choreographers, and song writers to the most famous recording artists of the century, Andrea Davis Pinkney takes readers on a Rhythm Ride through the story of Motown.
I love this book as a whole package. It’s square like a vinyl record and the cover looks like an old album cover with the font and lines. The woman on the cover is made with words that pertain to Motown and Hitsville and it looks really neat. I also love the color palette. Inside the page numbers are written on little records and the chapter titles use that same clean font you see on the front.
As far as the actual text, I’m lukewarm. It was incredibly fascinating the history and story presented and I was very engrossed in that. But Pinkney frames it as the story being told by “the groove” and the groove talks to a “child” as they drive along following the story. That narration comes with some extra text that introduces each chapter and also some stuff embedded in the chapters, like “Whenever it was time to perform, he had more than butterflies in his stomach. He was plagued with big-winged bats who had a flapping party in Marvin’s belly every time he was about to go onstage.” I can’t decide if kids will appreciate that and feel like it helps them understand the text and information more or if it’s just distracting and forced. Personally, it wasn’t my thing, but I also know kids have a hard time with dry straight facts so I think it might actually draw younger readers in. All in all, the story of Motown is incredible and an appendix lists songs young readers can look up and listen to (I highly recommend librarians and parents suggest they do this as they read!!). Only a handful of songs will be familiar to kids these days (and get off my lawn!).
So, we have this in our collection, a collection for pre-k through fifth grade. It’s definitely shelved in the more difficult nonfiction section. The book isn’t overly long and the chapters are mostly short, but it’s still a fair amount of text. It would be a handful of my fifth graders that could read this on their own. I’m of the mind, however, that we should be filling our shelves with high quality nonfiction that looks interesting, covers a range of topics, and will invite kids to at least flip through the books.I see it as the type of book you might hand to an open-minded kid who is willing to try any book you say is interesting or one who simply likes nonfiction and is open to just about any topic. In other words, I can certainly hand sell this one. I also think this is the kind of book that will appeal to a few special kids who are really interested in music and/or Motown and/or African American cultural history. Those kind of kids are also going to be motivated enough by interest that they’ll find ways to read the book despite a higher reading level. The book should certainly be on any middle school library (and even high school, those kids have less time to read for pleasure so give them some manageable stuff!) shelf where there is a music collection and it will definitely add to a nonfiction section in need of something interesting.