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2018 January



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

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.

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

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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.

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.

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