By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The City Kids series by Zetta Elliot
The Phoenix on Barkely Street
From Goodreads: Best friends Carlos and Tariq love their block, but Barkley Street has started to change. The playground has been taken over by older boys, which leaves Carlos and Tariq with no place to call their own. They decide to turn the yard of an abandoned brownstone into their secret hang-out spot. Carlos and Tariq soon discover, however, that the overgrown yard is already occupied by an ancient phoenix! When the Pythons try to claim the yard for their gang, the magical bird gives the friends the courage to make a stand against the bullies who threaten to ruin their beloved neighborhood.
From Goodreads: Summer vacation has just begun and Dayshaun wants to spend Saturday morning playing his new video game. But Dayshaun’s mother has other plans: she volunteers at a nearby community garden and that means Dayshaun has to volunteer, too. When Dayshaun puts on his grandfather’s grubby old gardening hat, something unexpected happens-the hands of time turn backward and Dayshaun finds himself in the free Black community of Weeksville during the summer of 1863! While helping the survivors of the New York City Draft Riots, Dayshaun meets a frail old man who entrusts him with a precious family heirloom. But will this gift help Dayshaun find his way back to the 21st century?
So far this is a great series for readers who are ready for a little more text, but aren’t ready for full blown chapter books yet. In other words, they’re transitional. And totally engaging. I’m not normally one for science fiction/fantasy in my books, but I know a lot of kids who are and, as I’ve found this year, there aren’t a lot of those books out there for them unless they are strong readers (most fantasy books seem to be damn thick books with small print, even in the middle grade section). Even fewer of the books available across the beginning chapter book market feature diverse kids or kids who live in urban settings (we didn’t all grow up on a farm or in a large house, myself included). There is a lot here to appeal to kids at the second/third grade level.
In The Phoenix on Barkley Street kids who are all about being green will love that the kids clean up and repurpose a vacant building’s yard. The bullying theme will resonate with many children who, at the beginning chapter book age, are very attuned to social justice. Parents looking for a book that promotes community and friendship will appreciate the themes in the book as well.
I especially loved Dayshaun’s Gift. It was such a great time travel book and it took him back to a period of history that, despite taking American History three times in my school career, I never even heard mentioned. Dayshaun is such a kid, though, and he will feel very real and inviting to kids, even ones who might not pick up a books if there is a whiff of anything educational about it. This is one of the brilliant things about all Elliot’s books. She manages to open your eyes to something new and teach you about it without the books feeling didactic or breaking the story. Spoiler alert: Dayshaun does make it back to the present and he returns to the outhouse of the Weeksville historical village. Kids will LOVE that tiny detail.
It’s times like these I feel very grateful that I am in charge of what books we buy and where we buy them from for our library. Elliot has self published many of her books and that makes it difficult for some libraries to buy her books. If you have any say, these would make an incredible addition to any library collection that serves kids starting out in chapter books.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Benny Andrews loved to draw. He drew his nine brothers and sisters, and his parents. He drew the red earth of the fields where they all worked, the hot sun that beat down, and the rows and rows of crops. As Benny hauled buckets of water, he made pictures in his head. And he dreamed of a better life—something beyond the segregation, the backbreaking labor, and the limited opportunities of his world. Benny’s dreams took him far from the rural Georgia of his childhood. He became one of the most important African American painters of the twentieth century, and he opened doors for other artists of color. His story will inspire budding young artists to work hard and follow their dreams.
This is exactly what a picture book biography should be for younger audiences. It uses the artist’s art as more than just a bit of decoration and the text is short, to the point, and very understandable.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that it uses Andrews actual art to illustrate it. Obviously you can’t do that with every picture book biography, but in this case Andrews drew the world he saw around him and in a way that is accessible to children. It makes the book feel very much like an intimate glimpse into his life.
To me one of the really appealing aspects of his art is the lighting he uses. It looks very bright, almost harsh. This has the effect of making the colors pop, which I think children will find very appealing. I’ve said this at other times and I understand that great art is not actually easy to create, however there is a child-like look to Andrews art and I think kids like to see art that they think they could recreate or that looks like their art. His pictures also have an element of collage to them and that makes them feel a little more three dimensional instead of flat paintings.
The text itself isn’t long. There is a short paragraph on each two-page spread with a piece of Andrew’s art. This does mean that you don’t get an exhaustive look at Andrew’s life, but for younger readers (second and third grade) it’s perfect. Not enough text to turn them off and not too little to feel too young. You get enough information that you have a sense of who Andrews was and what he accomplished and, if you find him interesting enough, a desire to learn more. Sometimes I think picture book biographies try to present too much information for the format and it ends up feeling taxing to read. Almost a bait and switch- you think you’re getting a shorter picture book and you end up slogging through something much longer and more involved. It’s a turn off for kids. Draw What You See balances text and pictures very well and then includes a note at the end, a timeline, and some resources. Kids can decide if they want to seek out more at the end.
I think this would be a great book for any library with a biography collection. It’s completely appropriate for younger and older audiences, too. It should draw in those kids just coming to picture book biographies, but it could very easily pique older reader’s interest in the artist. Again, another that is on my first list of purchases for next year. We need more diversity in that collection and here is a book that is both interesting and high quality.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Jim Aylesworth’s satisfying retelling and Barbara McClintock’s heartwarming pictures celebrate how Grandfather cleverly recycles his beloved coat through four generations.
This is the standard Joseph had a little overcoat story, but it’s done in such a touching way following the family through the generations that if feels very fresh. It might be one of those books that appeals a bit more to adults for the sentimentality of the story and pictures, but the fresh spin and details still make it a book for children.
I love the illustrations in the book, probably even more than the actual text. McClintock repeats layouts throughout the book that visually connect the family and the story through the generations and connect them to their eras. And while repetitive layouts and repetitive text could feel boring and stagnant, it doesn’t. It pulls it all together and takes what might be kind of a long story for younger kids and turns it into something very engaging yet predictable. McClintok also included lots of fun little details to notice: the fashion and house decoration through the ages, even the border on the front cover with spools and buttons. It just pulls the story together and makes it a fun book to pore over. Plus some of the pictures spark conversation, like the Ellis Island in the background of that cover picture.
I’m still partial to Sims Taback’s version of the story, but this one is great too and we can’t have too many books with Jewish families in our library at the moment. It’s on my list for purchases next year (since we’re done for this year). A lot of the illustrations feature small snippets of Jewish life (a menorah on the table and the wedding scene, for example) which the text does not mention, but still connects the story with its origins and gives Jewish kids a place to point to and say, “Hey, that looks like our table!”
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, May 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I recently came across this project called The 100 Day Project. It encourages you to do one thing for 100 days, with an emphasis on making or doing something. The project technically started back in April, but I just don’t have time to do this kind of thing every day during the school year and I feel like I had my plate full this spring. So instead I decided to start late and use it to guide some (most) of my summer reading. I have a couple larger projects planned this summer, like revamping my curriculum for the library and also, with the generous help of my best friend, who is also one of the second grade teachers, weeding our Native American content in the library.
The plan is to read one diverse book a day and review it. This will give me a lot of good practice reviewing and force me to seek out a lot more diverse books. Many will be picture books (my line up is on Goodreads if you want a sense of where I’m starting out and going) because they are faster to read and a lot of these books I’m looking at with an eye toward adding them to our library collection and I do a lot of the development in the picture book section. I am really trying to hit more than racial diversity, although we need plenty more of that in our collection, so if you have any suggestions please feel free to share them.
One final note, the project asks you to document your project on Instagram. As much as I dislike taking daily pictures and as much as I dislike having one more social media account to manage I’m going to try and do this. I will be adding my Instagram account in the sidebar, but as of writing this I haven’t done it. I think I can set it up to only see the hashtag for this project (fingers crossed). If not you’ll be seeing my other 100 day project which is 100 days of simple science play with my daughter. I suppose the Instagram will serve the purpose of documenting the reading even if I don’t get around to writing reviews each and every day.