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2018 January



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Hadara’s Hijab by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika

On 29, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hadara's Hijab

Hadara’s Hijab written by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika DNP, ARPN, FNP-C, PMHNP-BC

From GoodReads: Journey with Hadara and her father as they migrate to the United States from South Sudan for a new life. Hadara is ecstatic to embark on her new life and gain meaningful friendships in a new land, but soon discovers the harsh realities of being bullied due to her physical appearance. However, after an encounter with her peer, Chisom The Champ, Hadara is empowered to regain her self-love and self-acceptance.

We’re back in Chisom the Champ‘s world for Hadara’s Hijab, this time following Hadara, a young South Sudanese girl who has come to the United States with her father in hopes of getting a good education. Right off the bat I have to say I appreciate that this is not a refugee story from South Sudan. Certainly it is important for us to realize what is going on in other parts of the world, but the story of South Sudan often runs into what Chimamanda Adiche calls the danger of a single story. Mainstream media almost always depicts refugees from South Sudan fleeing violence. There are other stories of immigrants from South Sudan and other countries, though, and it’s important to see them. Moreover, there is no hint of exceptionalism here with Hadara. She wants to be a mathematician, but the text doesn’t call her out as a genius or make her out to be anything more than a girl who likes school. I assume she’s a bright girl and her father is a perfectly decent man too. But all they’re looking for is a better education for Hadara instead of expecting them to be model immigrants with exceptional qualities that make them “good enough” to be in the United States, a narrative we’re seeing a lot of in this political climate.

Hadara is obviously Muslim and not the kind of Muslim we see in a lot of picture books (although there are definitely a few from African countries, Deep in the Sahara comes to mind). It’s refreshing to see a non-Middle Eastern Muslim represented in a picture book as it gets away from that single story as well. The book does not center around her faith, which is also refreshing in that it can simply be ancillary to the story. It’s nice when faith is woven in, but Christian children get to see vaguely Christian children represented all the time (how many new Christmas books come out every year?) without their faith being specifically called out, so why not Muslim kids?

It should be said that Hadara is called out for being black primarily by the class mean girl (also for being Muslim, but the most hateful attacks are for being black). The language used against her is very specific. It made me uncomfortable reading it and I wonder about reading it to kids of color. I don’t doubt that it’s language they’ve heard before, but it felt very harsh. I think part of my own discomfort is the fact that I am white and felt conflicted about repeating the insults, particularly when reading the book to my white child. White teachers and librarians will need to unpack that feeling when using the book. It’s also probably nothing my daughter hasn’t explicitly or implicitly heard somewhere in media. My point being, your mileage may vary, but don’t discount it for that. I think the book really opens up a good conversation between adults and children about anti-blackness (and xenophobia). On a second read through with my daughter I discussed racism and bullying and how the two often go hand-in-hand. In our house, it’s a conversation we have regularly, but for those parents or teachers who aren’t used to the conversation this can both serve as a starting point and as a resource in a larger conversation.

Ultimately the girl doing the bullying comes around. At first I thought the resolution felt unrealistic. The mean girl really has a change of heart after Chisom and Billy Bob step in on Hadara’s behalf. But after thinking it through I realized we need stories that have those happy endings. Aren’t there enough ambiguities and unhappy endings going around right now? Why can’t we model how a mean girl can recognize her bad behavior, apologize for it, and make a commitment to do better? I think it’s a healthy ending to use with audiences who may need to see how that conflict resolution plays out.

I also think this is where the strength of the book lies. Chisom and Billy Bob intervene on Hadara’s behalf at two different points in the story. They overhear the mean comments and laughter of the students and don’t allow themselves to be bystanders. They speak up. Kids need to be shown how to do this. They need role models that do this. So much of the anti-bullying I see being taught in schools revolves around focusing on reforming the bullies and preventing the behavior. This is necessary, but most kids won’t be the bullies. They’ll be the bystanders overhearing the mean remarks and hateful language and they need to know that they can and should speak up when that happens. They also need to be explicitly taught how to speak up.

All in all, this is another book to have in your pocket (or on your shelf) to help combat bullying. It deals with it very explicitly and I think we really need resources that do that. Even more, it deals with anti-black and anti-Muslim prejudice and bullying which are issues our kids are seeing all around them. They need honest conversations with the adults in their lives and Hadara’s Hijab gives them an opportunity to face the problem head on and see how it can be dealt with.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy by the publisher, Melanin Origins, in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase the book here:

Hadara’s Hijab on Amazon (not an affiliate link) Available as an ebook, a paperback, and a hardback (woohoo!)

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Rerun: Chisom the Champ Meets the World by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika

On 25, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I originally ran this review back in September. I was still recovering from my first trimester woes and didn’t do much to promote it, so I’m fixing that now by reposting the review and making sure I cross post on GoodReads, Amazon and put up a picture on Instagram. I am also rerunning it because I will be posting a review in the next few days of a companion picture book in which Chisom has a cameo.

Chisom the ChampChisom the Champ Meets the World written by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika DNP, ARPN FNP-C, PMHNP-BC

From Goodreads: Enter into the life of Chisom, a young Nigerian boy, who repeatedly gets bullied for his cultural identity in a Western Society. Read along as he discovers that his strength is actually found in his family upbringing and in embracing his cultural values. The story of Chisom teaches children across the world that self-love is key to overcoming bullies and other interpersonal obstacles experienced in life’s journey. 

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher Melanin Origins in exchange for an honest review.

Where was this book a year ago when I was building the character education collection in the library? This was exactly the kind of book that we needed! It tackles bullying, cultural and self pride, and standing up for yourself and others.

Chisom appears to be growing up in the United States, but he makes it clear that his family is Igbo and shares some of his culture with the reader. His name has cultural significance, his parents are called by the traditional naming convention, Papa and Mama Chisom. Mama Chisom is apparently a good cook and, darn it, every book about Nigerian families features jollof rice and it makes me hungry every time. Chisom also wears traditional Igbo clothes, which eventually gets him in trouble with the school bully.

Billy Bob is a large red-headed boy who wears cowboy boots and teases everyone. He decides to start picking on Chisom calling him names and making fun of his clothing. Chisom is, understandably, really upset by this. After talking to his mom about it and reflecting on the pride his parents instilled in him he decides to stand up to the bully. The next day at school when Billy Bob starts in on Chisom, he tells Billy Bob to stop and explains that Billy Bob’s cowboy boots set him apart as much as Chisom’s Isiagu. He tells Billy Bob that everyone deserves respect and then, best of all, calls him in asking him to be a champion by giving up bullying.

The book is clearly made to encourage children to stand up for what is right. Chisom is a sweet boy with a loving and supportive family and he makes a great character for kids to connect with and root for. Certainly the book is important for all children to show that just because we look and dress differently doesn’t mean we deserve to be bullied. But I think this book is most important for children from immigrant families and black children who are often not allowed to feel pride in their heritage and families. Moreover, the book provides a good jumping off point for teachers and parents to talk about how to stand up for yourself and others. I think there are a lot of children out there that want to stand up to bullying and teasing, but don’t know where to start. Chisom gives them some good ideas, particularly the importance of calling people in (instead of simply calling them out) and language around those ideas. The ending may involve a bit of wish fulfillment, but it’s good for kids to see happy endings to these situations so they can keep a positive mindset.

Pair this with the charming The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, Red by Jan de Kinder for a storytime about standing up against bullying. Well worth adding to school library collections, particularly if you have a character education curriculum or anti-bullying campaign. Also well worth adding to classroom libraries for those first few weeks when you work on building community.

Purchase copies here (not an affiliate link):

Amazon (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Flying Above Expectations by Larry Simmons

On 12, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Flying Above ExpectationsFlying Above Expectations written by Larry Simmons, Jr., illustrated by Shereen Shahzad

Published by Melanin Origins

From GoodReads: Join Melanin Origins as we tell of the Tuskegee Airmen and a few of their accomplishments in flight and in moral character. Author Larry Simmons penned this story for children worldwide in hopes to awaken the conquering, persevering and ambitious nature in every child that reads this book. 

I know these reviews I write are designed to recommend books based on whether or not they would make valuable additions to library collections and I will talk about this book in those terms (or just go out and buy it already since it’s well worth it), but first I have to share how it really resonated on a personal level in our house. My daughter is nearly six and a half years old and while we managed to avoid the terrible twos and threes, she has really struggled this year with resilience in the face of difficulty and failure. For example, a small mistake on a drawing escalates quickly to her throwing her entire body on the floor wailing, “Everything is ruined!”. I would find it comical if I didn’t find it so incredibly frustrating. I have written before about how important I find the maker movement in large part because it teaches kids how to successfully fail and how to persevere. Yet here I am faced with my own daughter struggling to do that.

Thus far we’ve discussed how to handle disappointment and mistakes and I’m slowly amassing a pile of books that (not so subtly) hit perseverance over the head as a message with a capital “M”. The problem with them is that even the good ones tend to be pretty sneaky about teaching their lesson. I know a lot of people love that and don’t want to get slapped with a lesson, but I need help here. She needs to hear that message loud and clear.

So, when I got this book in the mail the other day I expected a fun historical story about the Tuskegee Airmen. I added it to our bedtime book pile. That night my daughter picked it out of a pile about a foot tall, so clearly it spoke to her. No surprise, the cover is bright and enticing and a little mysterious with the heart on the pilot. As I started reading it I noticed there were two colors of text on the page. The first few black lines of text follow the story of Anderson, the first African American to earn his private pilot’s license. Then a line or two of red text at the bottom of each page are affirmations and encouragement. Things like ” We all get sad, mad, upset, confused and frustrated, but don’t let those things knock you off course! You can still choose to fly above expectations.” Each piece of advice is tied to Anderson’s story, but not so intimately that readers will only see them as relevant to Anderson’s story. I think they do a brilliant job helping kids see how not only is Anderson’s story interesting, but it is applicable to their own lives. They can draw inspiration from him.

My daughter didn’t necessarily make the leap from these lines of encouragement to her own struggles (probably in large part because she wasn’t currently upset about losing a Lego she needed), but she did notice the two different colors of text. I did see how helpful these ideas will be and I immediately explained to her that they were special words from the author to her that were meant to help her see how Anderson helped himself make it through some very challenging situations.  The book is full of wisdom about pursuing dreams, keeping at things even when they seem insurmountable, and believing in yourself even when others don’t. We’re keeping this book in the bedtime rotation so we can refer back to it and use the advice as mantras when she does have one of those knock-down-drag-out tantrums.

Now I know my daughter was not necessarily the target audience here as a white, middle class kid. She’s got plenty going for her, especially if the worst thing she suffers from is an errant mark on an art project. I certainly took the opportunity to explain how it was important for her to keep trying and learn from failure, but I also took the opportunity to explain that race was a major factor in what led people to underestimate and discriminate against Anderson and the Tuskegee Airmen and also children of color she knows now. (For anyone interested, there’s a fabulous novel called Flygirl by Sherri Smith about a young woman from the same era wanting to be a pilot in the Air Force and passing as white to do so). The positive affirmation geared toward children of color that can be found in the story and the words of encouragement are reason enough for libraries to have this book on their shelves. Classrooms too! I suspect those children will get even more out of this story than my own daughter. Parents who need something in their back pocket for encouraging resilience, perseverance, and persistence should also have this on their shelves.

If I had one criticism it’s that I wish the illustrations were a little more detailed. My daughter is still on this kick where she really wants to know if the books we read are “true stories”. More historical detail might have helped her see the ties to its era. But not every book needs to be a historical study and the story, positive representation, and affirmations more than make up for the fact that the pictures lack some historical detail. She was excited to discover a photograph of Anderson at the end of the book.

It appears that the book is currently only available as an ebook. I was sent a paperback copy to review, so I’m hoping there will be a physical copy available soon. The book does not release until February 1st, timed I believe with Black History Month. If you want to pre-order/purchase a copy you can do so through the publisher here: Melanin Origins or through Amazon. (Not affiliate links.)

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy in return for an honest review. 

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: My ABC’s by John W. Ensley II

On 08, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

My ABCsMy ABC’s written by John W. Ensley II, M.Ed., illustrated by Wesley Van Eeden

Published by Melanin Origins

From Goodreads: My ABC’s is an English alphabet learning tool that provides images associated with the cradle of civilization. This book provides a fun, colorful way for children to learn the alphabet and a little more about African culture in a manner unseen before.

Here’s the ABC book for all you modern parents with a clean aesthetic. This is such a beautiful book from a graphic standpoint (also from a bookish standpoint). The colors you see on the cover are the entirety of the color palette and it makes for a very clean, easy-on-the-eyes, but not boring, visual experience. It feels like something you’d see in one of those impossibly fancy Midcentury home magazines or on some hipster baby’s bookshelf. Each letter stands out boldly in white on the page with a red line inside it. If you’re using this in storytime, the classroom, or with your own child, have the kids run their finger along the red line to learn the shape of each letter.

From an educational standpoint this book avoids the pitfalls that many (most?) ABC books, cards, and products fall into. The vowels! So often I find alphabets that have a mix of long and short vowel sounds. Worse yet, sometimes they have indistinct vowel sounds such as when the “a” is mixed with an “r” or some other letter that changes the vowel sound enough that it’s impossible for children to isolate the sound. Books that do this may be beautiful or even amazing, but they’re functionally useless. Not so here. Each vowel is paired with the short vowel sound making it beautiful and useful. Then there are the letters that can have more than one sound! I have a number of alphabet books that have “g is for giraffe”. True, but only in writing. Otherwise the “g” is making the “j” sound. This is incredibly confusing for children trying to learn letter-sound correspondence. Again, My ABC’s comes through. The letter sounds are clear and easy to hear. Well, actually the letter “c” cleverly uses the word “circle”, a “c” word that features both sounds the letter makes.

Some letters have fairly generic words associated with them (“umbrella” and “vegetable”) but when they are embedded in an afrocentric alphabet that features “b for braid” and a picture of a man with braided hair or “s is for sankofa” they take on a far less generic significance. They can also be opportunities for discussing how these words relate to African and African American culture. For example, here in Sacramento we have a black-owned, urban farm in one of our historically black neighborhoods. The owners offer education and food to the community it’s nestled in. What a great conversation to have in a classroom or at storytime that can promote local entrepreneurship and community. Some letters celebrate African culture, again “sankofa”, while others celebrate important goals like “education” and “graduate” that show, respectively, a black man and black woman achieving these things.

I sound like a broken record hitting this idea again and again in my reviews of books with diverse content (read: books with few or no white people), but I’ll say it again because apparently people still don’t get it. There is something here for every reader. You do not have to be black to enjoy or appreciate or need this book. First off, it’s an ABC book. There are a ton of them out there, the vast vast majority of them are mediocre at best. Alphabet books are great well into the early elementary years as kids learn to recognize shapes, letters, letter sounds, and then eventually need help remembering how to write a letter (especially directions of some letters like “b” and “d”). Why not have one that celebrates African culture? Better yet, why not one that celebrates African culture AND is gorgeous? Secondly, the book celebrates Africa, African culture, and black people. African American children need to see themselves positively represented in books and quite frankly white children need to see that too.

The book is available in both paperback and hardback. I recommend the hardback considering the age of kids that will be reading the book, it’s just that much sturdier. School libraries and libraries that serve young children should have this one and need to promote it. I assure you, there are plenty of those mediocre alphabet books on your shelves already, so there’s no reason not to have this excellent ABC book there to outshine the others. Families should also consider this one for their collections. It can open up a lot of interesting conversations for all families around the various things represented by the letters.

You may buy the book on Amazon here or through the publisher, Melanin Origins, here. (Not affiliate links.)

Full disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I also bought myself a copy because I want to read this to my daughters.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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