By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-black musicals instead.
You can be forgiven for not knowing Florence Mills. No recordings or film of her performances exist. And according to the author’s note at the end of the story, what we know about her singing is through what other sources report about her. It brings to mind the lighthouse of Alexandria.
The book is a little text heavy, but is really captivating. I read the story to my test subject (my four-year-old daughter) and she asked to re-read it several times. Mills was a woman of principle and she used her fame to support others and not just herself. She gave to the poor and helped other black performers. She also faced a lot of racism. Watson addresses it rather matter of factly without dwelling on it. The text also provides enough context for kids approaching this on their own to know it was Mills’ race that caused the discrimination and they see how she tried to combat it. I think this provides a very good opportunity for parents and educators to discuss racism. I also think teachers can introduce other black performers who helped break the racial barrier, such as Marian Anderson. Combined with other picture book biographies I think this could make a very interesting study of black entertainers and the discrimination they faced even when they were invited into white spaces. Watson has also woven in lyrics from various songs which, if you know the tunes, could make for a really great read aloud experience.
I love Robinson’s illustrations. The big-eyed Florence is totally endearing. The cut paper/collage style of the pictures and bright colors match the liveliness and adventure of Florence’s life. The scene of her funeral is particularly moving with the blackbirds silhouetted against the white sky and earth-toned buildings. Small blackbirds appear first on the endpapers and make cameos throughout the story as a small nod to Mills nickname. I thought that was clever and it was fun for my daughter to find them as we read.
I think this book is well worth adding to biography collections in libraries. There are more famous entertainers from the same era that could be argued to be more essential, but if you have money I highly recommend it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Ash Mistry Series by Sarwat Chadda
Book 1: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress
Book 2: Ash Mistry and the City of Death
Book 3: Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness
From Goodreads: Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage’s masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…
I really, really enjoyed this series. Growing up, like many kids, I was totally into Greek and Roman mythology. Then I found Ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Back then there were was very little YA and MG literature that I could get my hands on that featured good Ancient Egyptian content (I eventually started reading the Elizabeth Peters mysteries, which had a lot of romance and stuff that I wasn’t all that interested in) or even really Greek and Roman mythology and history. Now that Rick Riordan has written all those Percy Jackson books there’s plenty of Greek content out there. There are also the Kane Chronicles. And now it looks like Norse mythology is catching on. I think it’s great that there is a lot out there for kids who are interested in mythology and ancient cultures, but it’s really mostly focused on the Greeks and Romans. Which is why I think series like this one are awesome.
Ash Mistry is based around Indian mythology and it’s so rich. It helps that Chadda appears to know his Indian mythology, ideology, and history inside and out. It’s so seamlessly woven into the story of Ash. From Ash’s rebirths to the Carnival of the Flesh that appears in the third book. It all plays such an important role in the story. Chadda never panders to the Western audience by having asides that explain various aspects of the mythology, but there is explaining. You don’t need to know Indian mythology to understand and follow the story.
I did find the third book moved more slowly for me. I don’t know why. It was by far the most violent in action and depiction. Otherwise the books move along at a nice clip. They are full of action, but aren’t just plot driven. Ash grows and changes through the series into a wiser character. There’s a tiny bit of romance. Ash has a crush on a girl and there is something brewing between him and Parvati, but it’s never really the focus of the story and there’s only one kiss at the very end of the series. Ash is also incredibly devoted to his family which I thought deviated from the standard YA hero story and was a nice touch.
The series is definitely for older audiences. I had originally picked up the first book to see if it was something I could get for our fifth grade students. I don’t think it’s the best fit. There is a lot of violence. A lot. And it’s a lot more graphically depicted than, say, the Riordan books. That makes me think these books are really more YA than middle grade. Darn. They’re so good. I’m mulling it all over. Since we don’t have anything else that features Indian mythology I would consider having the first book on our shelves. That one is probably the least violent or graphic. I highly recommend this for libraries with middle school and high school age patrons. It’s so engrossing and mythology is certainly a popular subject.
There is one big, big problem with the series, though. Only the first two books have been released here in the U.S. I got the first two books from my public library and had to buy the third from a British dealer on Amazon. Why would the publisher do that? It was incredibly frustrating.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?
I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of Jewel Parker Rhodes middle grade novels at this point and I have loved them all. This was no exception.
I think it would be a mistake to sell this book to kids as only a September 11th book. It needs to be about the friendships and family themes in the book. Most kids in our elementary schools are vaguely aware of 9/11. It’s important and upsetting to those of us who were alive then, but not so much to our young students. I know they can grasp the importance and we’re certainly seeing the ripples of it still with our conflicts in the Middle East, but that’s Over There and way more abstract for these kids. Deja, the main character, struggles with understanding that and it makes the book all more relevant to kids today.
So, Towers Falling is not really a story about 9/11. It’s more a story about how families cope with trauma (or don’t). It’s about how parents and adults give their baggage to children and have expectations of them they can never meet because they don’t know the rules to the game their playing. It’s a story about a family that has fallen on hard times, like so many over the past years, and how it disrupts the children’s ability to function. It all coincides nicely with the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 and provides a way to talk about those as well, but I think in the years to come the book will have staying power because it is about teaching children to look past the surface of a person.
Deja is deep and she’s hurting and things are hard. She lashes out, she says inconsiderate things, she behaves poorly, not because she wants to or doesn’t know any better, but because there is a lot going on in her life and in her past and those things make it impossible for her not to. She’s been taught to be tough and mean and unfeeling and hurt others before getting hurt herself, but is being held to a standard that expects her to not do those things. Towers Falling is a story about how the past ripples out into the present. Again that happens to be the 9/11 attacks in this story, but it could just as easily be any other event- a shooting, an illness, a car accident. It’s also about how Deja grows through good friends, a conducive environment and learning about the root of many of her family’s troubles (which happen to be the September 11th attacks). It’s about how Deja becomes more aware of what is going on around her.
I found the book incredibly powerful. I realized I have never actually watched the footage of the attacks. I’ve seen the clips of the second plane and I remember a few photographs from the newspaper and that’s it. But I remember that day very vividly. I think it’s hard for me to say with certainly this book is an important part of collection development because I have an emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks. I believe it’s important for kids to know about them and I think this is a good story to learn about them through. I also think the story itself is only partly about 9/11 and has a lot of value and merit on its own. Recent history is important and I can’t figure out why we’re happy to talk about things like slavery and WWII, but deem 9/11 too hard for kids to learn about. This is a good book, but I know there will be resistance to putting it on shelves in elementary and middle school libraries. I think it should be on all library shelves and do think we need to consider putting this out there.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Long ago in what would come to be called Mexico, as Mama Alma and her granddaughter, Bella, recall happy times while walking in the garden they have tended together since Bella was a baby, Mama Alma asks that after she is gone her family remember her on one special day each year. Includes facts about The Remembering Day, El dia de los muertos.
I bought this one for our Spanish collection and because I know several classes, including our music class, study El dia de los muertos. Mora imagines a time when the tradition of El dia de los muertos began in this sweet story about Bella and her grandmother. The story is fairly quiet as the two remember the happy times they have had together. As Mama Alma realizes she is going to die she asks Bella to start a celebration of those who have died in their village.
I think this one would make a great addition to any collection. While it has the cultural component of looking at El dia de los muertos, it’s meaning and possible origin, it is also a story about a grandparent dying. I think it would be a good story to offer to children and families who have lost someone. My own family celebrates the Celtic version of a remembering day each fall and this would be a fantastic book to read at that time.
I loved that Mora’s first line makes it clear that this is something that started before colonizers from Europe came and she touches on it again in the note at the end of the story. Remembering the dead is not uniquely Catholic or even Christian and the practice goes back much further into our human history. I think it’s important to acknowledge that with our students and children.
The illustrations are warm and inviting. They show Bella and Mama Alma working in their garden, weaving, and playing together. The soft, warm colors enhance the nostalgic and gentle mood of the text. The text is a bit on the long side so your mileage may vary with very young audiences. I bought this specifically for my second grade classes, but I think it could be read up into fifth grade and down into Kindergarten. The story is just so worthwhile.
I am curious, the title in English is The Remembering Day while the Spanish title is El Dia de los Muertos. I understand that the holiday is about remembering and respecting the dead, so does that mean The Remembering Day is a more accurate translation? I like it better. Calling it the Day of the Dead always brings Halloween to mind for my students and sort of sucks the meaningful significance out of the holiday (we are actually one of those families that do not celebrate American Halloween, for the record, so this could just be a personal bugaboo). To my limited knowledge of the holiday The Remembering Day seems a lot more inline with what the holiday is about.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Form Goodreads: Born in Persia more than a thousand years ago, Ibn Sina was one of the greatest thinkers of his time — a philosopher, scientist and physician who made significant discoveries, especially in the field of medicine, and wrote more than one hundred books. As a child, Ibn Sina was extremely bright, a voracious reader who loved to learn and was fortunate to have the best teachers. He memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and completed his medical studies at sixteen. He spent his life traveling, treating the sick, seeking knowledge through research, and writing about his discoveries. He came up with new theories in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy and education. His most famous work is The Canon of Medicine, a collection of books that were used for teaching in universities across the Islamic world and Europe for centuries.
So I wasn’t totally captivated by the text in this one. It was in first person which I understand brings the reader closer to the subject, but it also made for a few awkward places. In looking further at the book I discovered that it was originally published in Arabic, which might explain the awkwardness. Things lost in translation.
Otherwise, Ibn Sina made me feel totally inadequate. NBD. He just finished his medical studies at 16. I mean I know it wasn’t like medical school these days, but still. 16. Clearly the man was a genius. The story of his accomplishments was really fascinating. He did a lot and was very interested in life long learning. He studied philosophy, education and even advocated for what we might today consider respectful parenting and teaching.
I wish there had been a little more historical context. He moved around a lot as an adult, but there was only a brief mention that one of the cities he lived in was frequently fighting with another. I think kids in the US will not be particularly familiar with the geography or history of the area or era and need more information. But I also understand that it could potentially make the book unwieldy and boring. A longer more detailed author’s note might have sufficed. I did appreciate that Sharafeddine noted that Islamic contributions to the world are rarely taught in US schools and that was a driving factor in bringing out this book.
I really like the illustrations. They’re done on a speckled brownish paper that makes the colors pop and is different from the usual white paper. The lines are so soft and the shading is spectacular. Everyone has these huge half moon eyes that make them kind of darling and friendly. The illustrations were done in colored pencil and are so saturated and rich.
I’ll definitely be buying this as our budget allows this year. We need more Islamic biographies and I don’t think we have anything on the Islamic Golden Age. The illustrations will entice my students to pick it up. My complaints about the text aren’t significant enough for me to not purchase it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Louis loves to watch birds. He takes care of injured birds and studies how they look and how they move. His father wants him to become an engineer, but Louis dreams of being a bird artist. To achieve this dream, he must practice, practice, practice. He learns from the art of John James Audubon. But as Louis grows up, he begins to draw and paint living, flying birds in their natural habitats.
I think these are very loosely poems, but it flows so nicely. Not that poetry can’t or usually doesn’t, but it feels more like prose. I’m just not positive it isn’t technically in verse? If that makes any sense. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The book is very interesting and the format really lets you into Louis Fuertes’ life.
The illustrations add little peeks into his life as he ages. The little boy becomes a young man. Children and a wife appear next to the bathtub hosting a loon while Louis sketches. His hairline recedes and grays. Neighborhood children gather around him in his study. While the text mentions all these things the illustrations really bring the small details to life.
One illustration features a picture from Audubon’s book of North American birds. My own daughter is familiar with Audubon’s work and I explained why Fuertes was important in changing how birds were observed and drawn. Audubon killed all his models and drew them. Fuertes observed live birds and kept them that way. Teachers and parents reading the book could use it to start a conversation about how our scientific methods and ideas have changed and improved over the years.
Amazon had the book nearly 50% off so I purchased it right away. Our first grade does a bird unit and I thought this would make a fantastic addition to the collection to support that study. I would certainly pair it with the picture book biography of Audubon that came out a couple years ago, but I thought this one felt warmer and more inviting. Maybe because I’m a bird person and find Audubon’s method a little disturbing. The text and illustrations feel youngish, but totally appropriate for lower elementary down to preschool.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In moving verse, Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis gives new voice to seventeen heroes of civil rights. Exquisitely illustrated by five extraordinary artists, this commanding collection of poems invites the reader to hear in each verse the thunder that lies in every voice, no matter how small. Featuring civil rights luminaries Coretta Scott King, Harvey Milk, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Mendez, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mamie Carthan Till, Helen Zia, Josh Gibson, Dennis James Banks, Mitsuye Endo, Ellison Onizuka, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
This is definitely for older audiences. The poems are unflinching in what they look at- KKK murders (Freedom Summer), racially motivated murders (Emmett Till), deep seated hatred (Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, Japanese Internment)- and the back matter includes more information.
I am reminded a bit of Rad American Women by this book, I think simply because it’s a book of activists and probably by the broad range of people examined. But the format it completely different. These are poems introducing children to people who have fought for civil rights all across the globe and for different groups of disadvantaged people. I didn’t personally click with a lot of them, but that’s just me. I think they will give kids exposure to a lot people they are probably not familiar with, but should have some awareness of- Harvey Milk and Aung San Suu Kyi to name two.
I don’t know why on my first pass through I didn’t realize that there were a number of illustrators including John Parra who I just saw in Marvelous Cornelius and who has a distinctive style. I really loved all the pictures here and I think they could serve as a good entree for reluctant poetry/nonfiction readers.
When Thunder Comes would be so worth putting on our shelves and I will add it to the collection development list, but it’s going to be a damn hard sell. It’s for older readers; it’s a picture book with picture book trim size; and it’s poetry. Those are three types of literature that do not leave our shelves all rolled into one. But I also very strongly believe that marketability can be created. I know there are teachers that would use this and with good readers advisory kids will pick it up. If you talk to your children about civil right struggles or if your school does anything with civil rights I suggest looking into adding this to your library purely for the range of people introduced here.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: If you had one chance to achieve your dream, what would you do? Long ago in Persia lived Barbad the musician, who dreamed of playing before the king. Blocked by a jealous rival, Barbad’s solution was simple: hide up in a tree and wait for the king to arrive!
This was a pretty gentle story. There weren’t really any great dramatics or adventures, but that was just fine. Barbad’s trick of befriending the gardener and hiding in a tree to play for the king is rather clever and even humorous.
Something was off in the timing of the story, though. There were pages with only one or two sentences and followed by pages with long paragraphs. The sentences would have long periods of time passing and then the paragraphs would focus in on a short event, which sounds like it would make sense, but felt more like it needed better editing and a little artistic license used to compress the story. It made the timeline harder to follow and felt unnecessarily disjointed.
I was also a bit turned off by the ending. Barbad is vying for a position held by another musician, Sarkash, and the king only keeps one musician in the palace. Admittedly Sarkash is a jerk. He prevents Barbad from playing for the king for a whole year, but he does it because it means he’ll be out of his job. The thing is, couldn’t the king have kept both? I know, I know that isn’t how things always work out. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical Barbad and Sarkash were a lot more nuanced than this simple story lets on. They’re here in this story to stand in as metaphors and lessons. Still. Barbad is not exactly a shining example either. He wants to be the king’s musician so he can live in the palace. Sure, he’ll send money back to his family but the book doesn’t say they’re in dire need, just that it was customary to send money home if you were making it. It makes his motive sound more selfish than selfless or artistically driven. He also thinks he’s better than Sarkash and when he finally gets his audience with the king he tattles on him for preventing him from seeing the king. One of the final scenes has Sarkash out on his ass (no, really! his donkey), riding away from the palace, turned out by the king. I couldn’t help but think, why didn’t Barbad choose to be a bigger person and not rat out Sarkash. It felt kind of petty. It also made me kind of hope that there’s a story somewhere where Barbad finds himself in the same position and realizing that maybe Sarkash wasn’t such a bad guy, just one who was afraid to lose his job. Maybe I’m reading way too much into this children’s book.
The illustrations are quite lovely with lots of bright birds and lush foliage. The contrast of the greens of the garden with the yellows and oranges of the sky and lighting are stunning. The lines of the illustration really draw your eye around the pages too. The text was long, but engaging enough. My own daughter sat through the story without complaint. I would still say it’s better for first or second grade over preschool. You could even read it up into third or fourth, although it might be a bit simplistic for older readers.
The story sounds, from the author’s note, like it is a well known Persian tale based on a historical character. For that reason alone I would consider purchasing this, but we have a surprising number of stories from Persian and Iran already so I think I will pass for now. If you are needing to add to or start a collection of Persian tales I would certainly consider this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Yasmin is visiting her grandmother, who lives in a country somewhere in the Middle East. On her first night, she’s wakened by the muezzin at the nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer, and Yasmin watches from her bed as her grandmother prepares to pray. A visit with Grandmother is always special, but this time it is even more so. Her grandmother makes Yasmin prayer clothes, buys her a prayer rug, and teaches her the five prayers that Muslims perform over the course of a day. When it’s time for Yasmin to board a plane and return home, her grandmother gives her a present that her granddaughter opens when she arrives: a prayer clock in the shape of a mosque, with an alarm that sounds like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
Time to Pray is a sweet story about a girl and her grandmother, but also a girl strengthening her faith. As the two spend time on Yasmin’s visit they share sweet moments over food and shopping while the grandmother helps Yasmin learn to pray. I do think the book does a good job feeling like this is primarily for Muslim children. It’s not overly explanatory, but it still feels accessible to non-Muslims. I think the relevance of the story lies in the relationship between Yasmin and her grandmother for anyone who already knows how to properly pray.
At various points in the book Yasmin notes that it’s more complicated being Muslim in a primarily non-Muslim country. There is no muezzin calling out prayer times and the mosque isn’t just around the corner. I found it surprising that Yasmin did not have a prayer rug at home, but I wondered if that implied that her parents were not particularly devout or found it inconvenient to try and pray all five prayers.
The illustrations really complemented the story and also showed small bits of culture adding depth. For example the grandmother has her hair uncovered while she and Yasmin are in the house, but once they go out shopping she is shown wearing hijab. Yasmin, who is still young, does not wear a scarf.
The Arabic text is fairly easy to read and understand even if you have a small working knowledge of the language. It’s been a long time since I was called on to read in Arabic, but using the English I was able to figure out most of it. It’s not too heavy on the diacritical marks which can make reading more confusing for the novice (like me) instead of more helpful. Often there’s just too much going on. It also isn’t a direct translation of the English text. It’s been worked around and played with to make it more fluid in Arabic.
I don’t think this is an absolutely essential purchase, but I do think it warrants serious consideration. I don’t have a lot of books in my library that focus on Christian or Jewish traditions, so I don’t feel like I immediately need to balance that part of the collection out with books about Islam. If you do currently have that collection development goal I think this would be a great addition. I’m going to add it to my “this year if there’s money, if not then next year” list. I want the representation, but I think Islamic holiday story books will see more circulation (kids love holiday books!).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: One evening as King Abbas tries to eat his dinner, his fish begins to hop around his dish — a sign that there are hungry people in the kingdom. And so disguised as a beggar, King Abbas slips out of his palace and shares his dinner with three poor ordinary men — or so they seem. But, in fact, each has a magical power and a dangerous plan to use it. The king appears to get caught up in their scheme — but he really has a surprise plan of his own tucked up his sleeve.
This was such a charming book! After reading it the first time I wanted to share it with my daughter. She was also really taken with it. The story is fairly recognizable: the king dresses as a commoner to go out into his kingdom where he learns a valuable lesson. There is humor in this one as well as a lesson and King Abbas doesn’t immediately do the right thing. He needs prompting from his vizier and the the thieves and time to reflect.
The illustrations are delightfully digital. Their angular and distinct shapes made me think about making this one into a flannel board story this fall. The colors make the book a little dated (1990s pastels, copyright date is 2000), but that doesn’t strike me as something a kid will notice.
I do feel like the story didn’t follow through with the idea of hungry people in the king’s kingdom. As King Abbas sits down one night to his evening meal, the fish on his plate won’t stop jumping around. His vizier believes it is a sign that there are hungry people in the kingdom. This prompts the king to leave the palace in disguise and kicks off the story. It felt to me like the story got sidetracked into this other tale about the thieves and pardoning them. I supposed they were meant to be the hungry people? Ultimately the book as a whole was so charming it didn’t occur to me until revisiting the story a third time.
I worry a little that the author took the story from her husband who, according to her note on the dedication page, was told the story by his father. She does not make any mention of changing details to suit her storytelling and I don’t want to assume she didn’t make any. On the other hand it sounds fairly authentic. It could be veering into the territory of made-up Native Nations myths. I think I would shelve it in our regular picture book section until I’m sure that King Abbas stories are a real thing. Ultimately it’s a great story about a historical person with a good lesson about being just.