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2019 April



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Maggie and the Sprinkle Tree by John Bray

On 19, Apr 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Maggie and the Sprinkle Tree Maggie and the Sprinkle Treewritten by John Bray, illustrated by Christian Jackson

From the publisher: Maggie is a busy girl with an active curiosity. But when her imagination swirls everything together, things can get pretty interesting. In this magical story, follow Maggie as she adventures out well past her bedtime and learns how delicious her adventures can be.  

I was really struck by this story because it really sounds like Maggie could be my own daughter. She doesn’t like wearing socks, she is creative and likes to make things, she’s 7 3/4 years old, and taller than average. We were in from page one.

The story itself is silly and lively and just fun. The original Kickstarter campaign ran on the idea that they wanted to create a children’s book that wasn’t moralizing and preachy. I think there is a place for books that have meaning with a capital “M”, but there is is equally a place for fun books like this. I found this to be an ode to kids who love to experiment with household things and what I imagine they wish their experiments would create. It’s wish fulfillment and joy and sometimes we need those books. As educators we want to be sure we’re showing kids that books don’t have to be read just for information or for learning (although we often learn when we least expect it and are having fun), but that reading can be a pleasure. Maggie is a pleasure to read and dream with.

For a self published book, Maggie is pretty swish. It’s a large picture book, in hardcover with a dustjacket. I personally take dustjackets off, but I know they help in libraries to keep books just a hair cleaner and less scuffed up. That’s a big win for any libraries wanting to add this to their collection. The illustrator has also done art for both the jacket and the cover underneath, which is always fun when reading aloud. When this is the case I like to take a little peek under the jacket and then discuss what it might be telling us about the story to come.

I find the illustrations to be quite charming. They’re brightly colored and have lots of details that make it fun to look at while reading. I also love that many of the words in the story are incorporated into the pictures. Words made from sprinkles, words that point directions, words with arrows directing you to look around the page and pay attention. It makes the reading experience a lot more fun and interactive.

So, why am I reviewing this book? It doesn’t feature a diverse cast, just Maggie and the author is a white guy. I actually listen to a podcast John Bray hosts with another author (and blogger) and he pointed listeners to his newsletter. Every couple weeks I get a very brief (thank god, I’m tired of these long newsletters folks send out) newsletter with a little rambling and an even shorter piece of writing from John Bray. His stories are absolutely charming. They always make me smile. If this sounds interesting to you, definitely sign up.

I would highly recommend the book for libraries and classrooms with kids who like to experiment with slime (that’s a big thing right now, I guess?). I could see first and second graders being really into the story. If you have a makerspace with books the encourage creativity on the shelf, here’s one to add.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Paseka: A Little Elephant Brave by Ruth James

On 12, Apr 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Paseka: A Little Elephant Brave written by Ruth James, illustrated by Kent Laforme

The book opens with Paseka (pronounced Pa-see-kah), a baby elephant , staggering around a grassland looking for her mother. She is being attacked by a pack of hyenas who bite her and frighten her. Something large and rumbling approaches and Paseka mistakes it for her mother and follows it. Luckily, it also frightens off the hyenas.

It turns out to be a jeep that is heading back to a campsite where Paseka tramples an old shed down and is tranquilized. A group of men put her into the back of the jeep and take her to a rehabilitation camp. Upon waking Paseka finds a herd of elephants where she thinks she spots her mother. The matriarch of the herd checks her out and accepts her into the group and she begins to find a place where she will be cared for. The herd eventually takes Paseka to a place where there are elephant bones and we discover her mother has been poached. Paseka comes to terms with the death of her mother and hears her mother encourage her to be brave.

The publisher contacted me about writing a review of Paseka and gave me access to a digital copy. Before I got a copy I did some research and found it was written by a white woman who has lived in Tanzania. I hoped the book would steer clear of a white savior narrative, exoticizing Tanzania and its people, and looking at it from an outsiders perspective. I think for the most part it does and Paseka does a couple things that are useful. The first is, and this was pointed out in the publicity for the book, it gives children from Tanzania, and Eastern Africa more broadly, a picture book featuring local folks, local wildlife, and local habitats. The author works with a nonprofit that provides books to children in Tanzania and Kenya (as well as other services). In terms of distributing books to children in other parts of the world, picture books written with American, Canadian and European children in mind don’t have the same cultural relevance to children elsewhere. It’s important for them to see themselves and their homelands reflected in the literature they read and Paseka does that. It also has a Kiswahili translation of the text in the back. I worry a lot about the white savior aspects of the non profit, but the book itself doesn’t feature any white folks. It’s all Tanzanian people caring for Paseka and reuniting her with other elephants. I cannot speak to how it fits with local beliefs and sensibilities either, but I hope the author knew enough to at least try to make a relevant book. I do wish publishers sought out African authors and illustrators and gave them the opportunity to write books about their lives and their countries. That’s the ideal, the gold standard.

The other thing the book does is open conversations around wildlife conservation, the importance of local people being involved in those operations, and allows educators and parents to take a hard look at who is doing the poaching and why. I’m thinking of that dentist a few years back that killed the famous lion, but also capitalism and its expansion and the expectations it breeds around access to things like ivory, etc. And also exploitation of places impoverished by colonialism. These are important conversations for us to have with our children and students.

The text is definitely on the long side and it starts out scary with a hyena attack on the baby elephant. Proceed with caution with younger audiences. That being said, I think the ending actually delves beautifully into the majesty of elephants, their intelligence and intuition. Paseka is taken to tree where bones of poached elephants lay. There she finds a skull that brings to mind a heartsong that “she had heard…every day before she came into the great wide world.” So while sad and heart wrenching at first, it ends with warmth and love.

The illustrations are soft, sparse watercolors and I love that all the elephants look different. I’m a hippie at heart who had a home birth so the illustration of Paseka in wrapped in warm-toned swirls and hearts with an umbilical cord and her mother floating on the opposite page looking on lovingly and floating in what appears to be the universe really hit me in the feels.

I definitely think if you have books like Owen and Mzee and they’re popular and/or they fit with your curriculum this is a book worth having. It will also appeal to those environmental/animal activists in your library and classrooms. But use it open up hard discussions about places like Tanzania and why they need organizations to come in and provide children with books and why they have economic needs that facilitate poaching. Also use it to talk about the beauty and resilience of these countries and their people. Talk about how they want to preserve their land and their fauna and how they help themselves do that. Don’t let this book live in isolation in your collection or classroom.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Dreaming Their Way Out by Leonard Williams

On 05, Apr 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dreaming Their Way OutDreaming Their Way Out written by Leonard Williams, illustrated by Ohana Tozato

From Goodreads: Dreaming Their Way Out is about seven orphans who are desperately yearning for a family. One night when they dreamed about escaping the orphanage something indescribable happens. They do not realize that this discovery will change their lives forever.

Dreaming Their Way Out felt like pure wish fulfillment. Seven children are in a nun-operated orphanage, Roald Dahl style. They have to do all the hard work around the house and Sister Agatha is using them to earn money. Thankfully there does not appear to be any physical violence against the children and we don’t know why the children are orphaned (so no violent or tragic stories about their parents explicitly spelled out). One night, after another tedious and unpleasant day, in a shower of silver sparkles the kids meet a group of adults with wings. They discover that these people are their guardians and they take them off to a magical dream land where they eat good food, play with animals, and fly around magnificent natural places. Now that the children know they can spend time with the grown ups who care for and about them and can visit such a spectacular world they can’t wait to get through the days and dream their way out.

I certainly see this appealing to dreamy kids with their heads in the clouds. I’ll be honest, I was a day-dreamy kid growing up and had all kinds of wild fantasies that involved wild narratives like living in the woods, living on a farm, being able to talk to animals. And each of these stories I made up in my head did not involve parents and had limited adult roles in them. I could see a kid like myself eating this story up. I could even see it inspiring kids to write their own fantastical, hopeful, warm stories.

In terms of handing this to a kid in the foster system or a kid who is up for adoption or has been adopted, I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’m not well versed enough in the issues of foster care and adoption to say how this story aligns with the treatment they receive, any stigma there might be against them, or if this kind of narrative is harmful. I would say proceed with caution. I only recently became aware of adoption kidlit as a genre and how problematic it can be. Is this different because it’s just so winsome? Again, I don’t feel qualified to say for sure. As with all books don’t treat it like something only a child with that type of story would enjoy. All kids can benefit for books with stories different than their own.

I do really appreciate that a story with such fantastical, magical adventures features seven kids of color. This is so rare and such a gap that needs filling in kidlit.

The book was a little on the long side which would make it better suited to reading with one or two kids at a time. But that also makes it a good fit for classroom and school libraries where kids check books out and have them to either take home or read over more than one sitting. The language isn’t terribly difficult which would make it accessible to a second or third grader.

The story ends on a high note, but also with a “to be continued…”. I’ll be curious to see what other magical adventures this group of friends finds in the years to come.

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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