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2018 December



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Carefree, Like Me! 2 by Rashad Malik Davis

On 22, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Carefree Like Me 2Carefree Like Me! Chapter 2: Sacra the Joyous written and illustrated by Rashad Malik Davis

From the publisher: Amir and Neena joined the adventure of a lifetime by mistake, but they met their first challenge head on. They helped King Root the Brave conquer his “biggest” fear, but will they be able to help bring Sacra the Joyous’s smile and dry home back to life? Continue the adventure inside and get lost in the magic once again. 

In this second installment of the Carefree Like Me! series we pick up where the first book left us hanging! Amir and Neena find themselves in a hot, dry land. As they stumble through the desert they come upon a city full of tired, hot people. Following an alluring flute melody, the two kids meet Ichtaka who explains that the goddess Sacra, who normally brings rain and life, has been absent for some time. He points them in the right direction to find her and try to help bring the rains the land and people so desperately need. Once in Sacra’s palace Amir and Neena realize Sacra needs to find her joy again and they try a number of strategies

Ultimately, a split-second and selfless decision on Neena’s part shows Sacra that maybe she shouldn’t be forever moping around in her palace, but down helping her people. I love the idea that joy is not found in things or even small gestures, but in true friendship. And that with that joy you can bring life and happiness to those around you. Maybe I’m tired of the holidays and all the focus on stuff, but I want more books that show kids the best gifts you can give and get are not things, it’s strong, resilient relationships. Joy is in what you give not what you get.

I also felt the environmental aspect of this was very timely with climate change at the forefront of many of our minds. I wish it was a simple matter of getting a goddess to smile that would bring the rain we need and to stem the tide of climate change, but I do believe this would be a powerful conversation to have with the children you read this book with. Bring up those hard topics again and again. Parent for revolution. Be a library for revolution.

And on that note, investing in and supporting children’s social-emotional development, as these books do, can be revolutionary. We need kids with deep empathy for others if we’re going to turn this world around. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to have conversations with children about emotion and show them that emotions are healthy, natural, essential and human. Davis has included an excellent list of discussion questions and prompts at the back of the book. This can really help you and your child or students dig into what the underlying social-emotional message is in this book. The questions are really great because they’re open ended and acknowledge that while we all have emotions, what each individual needs to care for themselves and their emotions may look different and they encourage children (and their grown-ups) to reflect on what that looks like for them.

Which also brings me to the roots of the civilization shown in chapter 2. There’s a great note at the back of the book that shares more information about the Mexica people. It’s a few facts and a short list of resources Davis used in his research, but it opens up a world to the children reading this book. I cannot get over the fact that Davis’ first note calls the people Aztec then explicitly says they didn’t call themselves that. Take that colonization! He goes on to explain that one of their names for themselves was Mexica (meh-she-ka). He also points out that their language is still spoken and that their descendants are still here!

Another aspect of this I didn’t consider until this second book is that I so appreciate Amir and Neena’s friendship. I feel like it’s incredibly rare to see a close boy-girl friendship and even rarer to see one that doesn’t require one of them to conform to the other’s gender norms. Meaning, Neena doesn’t have to be a tomboy and Amir doesn’t have to be a more feminine boy. Again, parent for revolution. Be a library for revolution. Show kids that binary, rigid gender expectations don’t determine who can and can’t be friends and who you can go on adventures with.

Davis has upped his game in this second chapter both in terms of the art, the length (there is more text), resources at the end, and the actual text. I still really love how fun and whimsical the comic-style art is. It adds levity and humor to the stories. Try not to laugh at Amir’s facial expressions and Neena’s body language. This book feels even brighter and more exuberant than the last. There is more detail in each of the illustrations and lots of bright colors. There’s more texture and shading too. It makes the book feel polished (which isn’t to imply that the last book wasn’t, Davis is just clearly getting better which is to be expected). This book is also rhymed like the first, but Davis has improved here too. I think the longer text helped, but he has some very clever rhymes in there. Kids will appreciate Amir rhyming “interrupt” with “butt” (butt jokes never get old) and adults will appreciate the flow of the text.

Like the first chapter, chapter 2 leaves us on a cliffhanger with yellow eyes opening in the dark. I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment! Libraries of all kinds should have these on their shelves. Not only do our children deserve diverse books, but they also deserve books that cleverly teach them social emotional skills. And we should all be supporting amazing artists like Rashad Malik Davis!

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Jewels from Our Ancestors by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 21, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jewels from our ancestorsJewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Jamilla Okubo

From Goodreads: Jewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs is a short, illustrated literary collection of words of wisdom from the continent of Africa. The book honors the elders who have come before us and gifted us with sensible sayings that compel both readers and listeners to reflect, learn and grow.

I remember stumbling across The Night Has Ears when I was cleaning up our folk and fairy tales picture book section of the library. I was surprised to discover it was by one of my favorite children’s book authors Ashley Bryan and was quite taken with it both because of his art and the complex simplicity of the proverbs themselves. It seemed like such a grown-up thing to be sharing with children and yet when I shared it with some of my students they clearly grasped these ideas so well.

Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has given us another stunning collection of proverbs for children here with Jewels from Our Ancestors. This is, on the surface, a simple collection of proverbs paired with stunning paintings that depict the saying. Where Bryan’s illustrations are on the psychedelic side, Okubo’s are understated, but no less beautiful. People are shown in silhouette with lovely patterned fabrics. Blue predominates giving it an ethereal quality, but so too do earth tones give the sayings a feeling of groundedness. You can see the brush strokes in the paintings which give large expanses like walls and backgrounds a texture that breaks them up in an inviting way.

The simple proverbs collected by Pizzoli again feel so sophisticated and yet accessible for young audiences. Many share profound advice that all readers would do well to heed while others are light yet meaningful. And while children may or may not be readily able to use the advice they might gather from this collection, they can certainly mull it over for years to come.

The concepts here give the book such a broad range of ways it can be incorporated into the classroom or the home and I see so many uses and applications for the book. For classrooms that study African cultures, you can share these. Of course this should be a piece in a broader study of African cultures and be wary of slipping into fetishizing or exoticising African wisdom and African cultures. Older students might want to research, if they can, the origins of the proverbs and how they relate to the cultures they originated in.

Jewels would also make a great addition to language arts studies of idioms, proverbs, and sayings. Many cultures have proverbs and sayings that impart wisdom in succinct and condensed nuggets. Compare them across cultures and examine their use of sparse, but impactful language. How is that these important pieces of knowledge can be distilled down into such short statements?

In my own home we have a set of cards with affirmations on them that relate to social ideas, emotional regulation, and building self esteem. We tend to read one at the breakfast or dinner table and discuss how it relates to our day or how we feel about it. I could see incorporating these proverbs into dinnertime discussion. Talk about what they mean, how they relate to your day or week, or how you might incorporate them into your daily life. Do any of them speak directly to you or what is going on in your life? I know a number of these did for me and it’s something I would like to share with my daughter. Grown-ups, remember to share your own ideas with children! This isn’t about grilling them about their New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a conversation about how we can all benefit and grow from these pieces of wisdom.

With such beautiful illustrations you could also use the book as a model for collage art. Cutting silhouetted people, using patterned papers to illustrate student’s stories and painted backgrounds and details make this a good model for mixed media art. Let kids experiment with various materials and see if they can illustrate their favorite proverb from the collection.

This would make an excellent addition to any school or home library that wants to diversify it’s collection. And with all the ways you can use it will be worth the purchase price. Please support small independent artists, authors, and presses. The English Schoolhouse in particular puts out gorgeous books at reasonable prices that will make your library collection well rounded and beautiful.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.

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

Nonfiction Review: Of Gods and Goddesses by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 14, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Of Gods and GoddessesOf Gods and Goddesses: Deities of Ancient Rome written by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Elena Tommasi Ferroni

From Goodreads: As a young child, I remember reading books about mythology from all over the world and feeling a very strong connection to each of the mythical beings, even though I never recognized myself in the illustrations for the texts I read. In Of Gods and Goddesses: Deities of Ancient Rome, master Italian painter Elena Tommasi Ferroni and I reimagined sixteen ancient Roman deities to reflect the multicultural society of today.

Before my decade long obsession with Ancient Egypt there was Ancient Greece and Rome. I remember a friend of mine giving me a copy of some Usborne book about Ancient Greece and I was off and running from there exploring the ancient world and voraciously reading all the illustrated books about Greek and Roman mythology that I could get my hands on. I wrote reports in my free time I was so excited by this stuff. I would get out of my seat at free reading time to share things with my teacher that I read. I pored over books at home, wrote my own, and drew pictures. I even made a plaster of paris and cardboard Trojan horse. The art aside, this was unlike anything I had ever done before. I was fascinated and I don’t think I was or am alone in that fascination. From my time in the classroom and the library in elementary, middle and high school I have seen kids fall in love with Ancient Rome over and over.

Looking back as an adult I see some pieces to that interest that I was completely unaware of at the time. The first is that, as white girl, I saw myself reflected in the homogenous and white-washed Greek and Roman world presented in children’s books. I didn’t feel alienated or unseen by the books I was consuming. I now know, from further reading I have done in just the past year or two, that the ancient world was far from WASP-y. It feels like a palm-to-forehead kind of idea now, but it just hadn’t occurred to me because of the media I was consuming around it and because of the prevailing narrative we see in education, particularly primary education. With her new book Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has produced something incredible to correct this. She has intentionally included pictures of the gods and goddesses with dark skin and natural hair. A glimpse of the cover lets you know you are in for a treat and that this is not Ancient Rome as usually seen by children.

Which brings me, briefly, to the illustrations. They are stunning. Each one is frame-able (and you can buy prints of them on her website!) they are so beautiful. Each god or goddess is depicted with some symbols of their essence. There are a variety of skin tones, hair types, and clothes (no one is naked, btw, for those of you who need to worry about that). Ferroni illustrated Fatou and Kora, another of Pizzoli’s beautiful books. She has outdone herself here with these portraits. The paper they were originally done on gives them a texture that makes you want to stroke the pages. The color palette is muted and earthy and each text page features a tiled pattern down the left side of the page. It all feels very cohesive and polished. It makes most of the other mythology books I’ve seen seem garish and absurd. This feels like putting high art in a kid’s hands.

The second part of my obsession I have seen upon reflection is that I was struggling with reading at the time. I remember carrying around books and checking them out and even buying a few that I was just not ready to sit down and read through. I read as a kid, but I hit some kind of plateau in forth or fifth grade and didn’t break free from it until middle school. This is why I have such a sympathy for those reluctant readers. And it wasn’t about not having found what interested me. I had a number of interests, but the books that were considered “appropriate” or “at my level” were just too hard. I would stare at the pages and not be able to make heads or tails of the text. I loved flipping through those Eyewitness books, but I didn’t even know where to being reading (as an adult I can see exactly what I should have been doing reading them, but at that time it was too overwhelming). Of Gods and Goddesses is perfect for this type of student. It’s perfect for any student, but if you have those reluctant readers that are dying to get into this topic, you need this book on your shelves. It’s so accessible. Pizzoli has distilled the pantheon down and shared the most relevant information about these gods and goddesses. It gives just enough information to show kids what role these deities played in Ancient Rome while giving them a push to explore more when they’re ready. I know I would have memorized this book as a kid and been able to list off the information whenever I wanted to talk about it with someone.

I know people love to think that picture books are only for young kids, but they are wrong for so many reasons. I cannot recommend this book enough if you serve upper elementary and middle school populations. Waldorf schools in particular come to mind for me here as an educator. They do studies of the Ancient Greek and Roman (and maybe Norse and Egyptian) worlds. Especially the deities. Plus they emphasize beautiful art. Here is a perfect vessel for that study. Ditch your D’Aulaires for this pantheon. They have plenty of problematic content to begin with and this is so much better on all fronts. We all have students who love mythology and the Ancient World, make sure you have this book on your shelves for them.

If you are on Instagram and are reading this before December 21, 2018 hop over to my Instagram account for a chance to win a copy of the book.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.

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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