By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Welcome to Mammoth Cave. It’s 1840 and my name’s Stephen Bishop. I’ll be your guide, so come with me, by the light of my lantern, into the deepest biggest cave in all of the United States. Down here, beneath the earth, I’m not just a slave. I’m a pioneer. I know the cave’s twists and turns. It taught me to not be afraid of the dark. And watching all these people write their names on the ceiling? Well, it taught me how to read too. Imagine that. A slave, reading. But like I said, down here I’m not just a slave. I’m a guide. I’m a man. And this is my story.
As soon as I read the review of this in the Horn Book I purchased it. Not only does our second grade study slavery (in the context of the Underground Railroad) in the spring, but our third grade does a science unit on caves in the fall. It felt like the perfect bridge between the two grades.
Like all picture book biographies there is a storyline that follows Bishop’s life that is followed up by a historical author’s note that provides more context. I have mixed feelings about that format because I think that kids often skip the two pages of text unless they’re really interested. I suppose that’s fine if they’re getting some good tidbits and thinking points in the story (they do here). However, I think it makes these books perfect for classroom settings where teachers can provide further context and connection and will also be able to read the note aloud to students, ensuring they get that extra information.
I thought the idea of having Bishop tell his own story was an interesting choice. It certainly brings the reader into his life story. I think it also gives the man a voice when he really didn’t have one. According to the note at the end he didn’t leave any real personal record of himself and there wasn’t much left by his white owners or other historical records either. I will point out that this is not #ownvoices, so take that into consideration especially since the book does give a voice to a slave who never really had one.
I’m not sure these are the absolute best illustrations I’ve seen by Collier, but they really tell the story. I actually think the print job on the book could have been better and that the paper and print quality diminished them a bit. Most, if not all the pages (I’m sorry I don’t have the book in front of me right now) have a split level. You see above ground and also below ground which fits perfectly with the idea of the split in Bishops life: above ground- slave, below ground-just a man. There are white people in the pictures, but Bishop is, appropriately, front and center.
Both the cave system and Bishop made for a fascinating picture book biography and would make a good addition to any biography collection.
Side note, going back to print quality. The paper was kind of thin and a little too shiny. It felt kind of cheap. And the dust jacket was like a good several centimeters too long for the hard cover which made it strangely floppy and weird to put into a Gaylord cover. Wth print company? Wth, publisher? Do better. Make nice picture books that will last. The lack of quality kind of makes your second-rating of books about people of color show.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks—the musical interludes between verses—longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, here’s how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.
This is another one that I have mixed feelings about. I found the story of DJ Kool Herc really interesting. It’s a neat American music story. It’s a great story about an immigrant playing an important role in shaping popular culture. I like the idea of having an artist who is Jamaican-American on the shelves to balance out all the white Classical composers (although our music collection is looking quite diverse after weeding and new additions). I also like that this is a modern black artist and not a slave narrative. We need more modern biographies in our collection.
But! The text is a little long, as it can be in picture book biographies, which make them a hard sell to the kids. I think the hip hop aspect will pull students in, but we don’t have a high circulation of picture book biographies in general. I also wasn’t super captivated by the text. I took an interest in it but didn’t find it terribly memorable. I don’t think either of these things means that it shouldn’t be on my own library’s shelf, just that it might see less circulation. That also means I need to do some leg work to get the kids reading it.
I love the color palette in the illustrations. There are a lot of quiet earth tones with pops of red and aqua. I think it gives an interesting feel to the city setting.
I don’t think this is an essential purchase for every library. If you have kids interested in hip hop, definitely buy it. But an overt interest in hip hop isn’t necessary to enjoy the book. If you have funds I would certainly say you should add it to get some diversity in the music section of your library. If you have a music collection that circulates you should add it. I’m adding this to my ongoing list of books I want to buy. It’s not that long of a list so this will end up on our shelves at some point this year, but our budget is in flux right now so I’m only buying stuff that directly supports our current units of study.
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 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 11, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: His white teacher tells her all-black class, You’ll all wind up porters and waiters. What did she know? Gordon Parks is most famous for being the first black director in Hollywood. But before he made movies and wrote books, he was a poor African American looking for work. When he bought a camera, his life changed forever. He taught himself how to take pictures and before long, people noticed. His success as a fashion photographer landed him a job working for the government. In Washington DC, Gordon went looking for a subject, but what he found was segregation. He and others were treated differently because of the color of their skin. Gordon wanted to take a stand against the racism he observed. With his camera in hand, he found a way.
I was surprised! The book, despite its author who writes incredible poetry, is in regular prose. It’s also fairly brief text which would make this a fantastic book for a Civil Rights unit and/or African American unit in a lower elementary classroom. Weatherford introduces a lot in the text with few words and leaves the mind with more questions than it answers. Perfect for opening up discussions mostly about race and racism.
I love, love, love the illustrations in the book. From the cover I expected them to be more modern with lots of clean straight lines. While there are plenty of those, as well as a subdued palette, and modern looking textures, I felt they were a more inviting than other illustrations in that style. They certainly capture the clothing and look of the era, but they also focus a lot on the people instead of the setting in a way you don’t usually see in that modern illustration look. It makes sense in a book about a photographer who primarily shot people. In some ways they remind me of old Disney animation, particularly the mostly static backgrounds you would see in cartoons like Robin Hood and Lady and the Tramp.
There’s a great biographical note at the end that I think fits well with the short text. It’s not overly informational making it perfect for the kids who will be most interested in the picture book part, but still offers a little more context for the story. ALSO, Parks directed Shaft?!?! I loved those movies in high school. I had no idea Parks was the director. I wish there were a handful more of his photographs or at the very least a couple websites where kids can go to look at more of his work. Particularly to help out the grown ups who will be sharing this book with kids (as I librarian I have few ideas of where to go, but I suspect teachers and parents will have less of an idea).
I will be buying this one for our library. As I said yesterday I’m looking for good biographies to improve our biography collection and this one fits the bill nicely. It’s interesting to get an arts person in there that isn’t an old painter. I still need way more women, but this one is too good to pass up. Consider it if you have a picture book biography collection. Based on the text it’s about right for first through third grade, but I certainly think you could read it younger depending on how your population feels about opening up hard conversations.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Jimi Hendrix was many things: a superstar, a rebel, a hero, an innovator. But first, he was a boy named Jimmy who loved to draw and paint and listen to records. A boy who played air guitar with a broomstick and longed for a real guitar of his own. A boy who asked himself a question: Could someone paint pictures with sound?
I am always looking for books to make our biography collection both a little less white and also more interesting. We have all the old standards you would expect in a school library: Ben Franklin, Marie Curie, Hellen Keller, Paul Revere. Basically a bunch of men that founded the country and then a handful of other people who have lived in the intervening years with few from the last 50-100. I want more biographies of people alive now or people who were working in the last few decades. When I saw this Jimi Hendrix picture book biography I thought I would take a look.
I guess my first concern is that kids don’t know who he is and so his biography on the shelf isn’t going to be any different to them than the rest of them.
The text read a lot like some of the jazz books I was reviewing. There would be a block of text and then two lines offset and flowing along a wavy line that made poetry of what the paragraph was explaining. It was certainly an interesting format. Overall there wasn’t a lot of information about Jimi’s life. It was more impressionistic. The back matter has an author’s note that addresses his death and substance abuse. He frames it well, but be aware that it is in there. The back matter also points the reader to more sources. I think the book piques interest more than anything.
There is something problematic in the book. The story talks a lot about how young Jimi draws all the time. One two-page spread has him drawing a mix of pictures as the text lists them off. In that list “fierce Indian chiefs”. And up on the top left a small drawing of two Native men wearing headdresses and drawing bows while standing in front of two tipis. I know this seems like a little thing, but it doesn’t further the story nor is that particular drawing necessary to understanding Jimi. It could have been anything else. Plus it goes by with no comment and that is the kind of subtle depiction I’m trying to get away from.
I think I’m going to skip this one for two reasons. First and foremost the “fierce Indian chiefs” and because I’m not sure the kids know who Hendrix was so may not be inclined to pick it up. Your mileage may vary with this. If those sorts of depictions are not high on your list of grievances, I think it’s a fine book besides that. I certainly think you should consider it if you have kids who are into classic rock and/or Hendrix.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Imagine a childhood full of adventure. Where riding horses, playing in the woods, and hunting for food was part of everyday life; where a grizzly bear, a raccoon, or a squirrel was your favorite pet. But imagine, too, being an orphan at the age of six, being forced off your land by U.S. soldiers, and often going hungry. Such was the childhood of the first great American Indian author, Charles Eastman, or Ohiyesa (1858-1939). Carefully edited for a younger audience by multiple award-winning author and editor, Michael Oren Fitzgerald, Indian Boyhood recalls Eastman s earliest childhood memories. He was born in a buffalo hide tipi in western Minnesota, and raised in the traditional Dakota Sioux manner until he was fifteen years old. He was then transplanted into the white man s world. Educated at Dartmouth College, he went on to become a medical doctor, renowned author, field secretary for the YMCA, and a spokesman for American Indians. Eastman was at Pine Ridge during the Ghost Dance rebellion of 1890-91, and he cared for the wounded Indians after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In 1910 he began his long association with the Boy Scouts of America, helping Ernest Thompson Seton establish the organization.
The book starts off well with an interesting foreword by Charles Trimble, a registered Oglala Lakota, that identifies the specific nation that Ohiyesa/Eastman was part of. In the foreword he presents the historical context and sets the scene for the book and while not graphic, he is unflinching in how he presents the events that shaped Ohiyesa/Eastman’s life.
“In the so-called Indian Uprising of 1862 the Dakota people rebelled against white incursions onto their lands and the government’s withholding of treaty-guaranteed rations that left them starving. Ohiyesa/Eastman’s extended family fled to Canada to escape the U.S. Army, which was hell-bent on brutal vengeance…”
This foreword is followed up by an editor’s note in which Fitzgerald is upfront about what changes he has made to the original text. The story and text is adapted from Ohiyesa/Eastman’s autobiography. It seems most of the text was simplified and shortened to make it more accessible to younger readers and to fit it into this format. It appears that all involved with the project are hoping to spark interest in Ohiyesa/Eastman. In a brief footnote Fitzgerald also explains that he is using the term Sioux because it is the term in the original work. He goes on to at least acknowledge that the term is European-American and lists the Nations that fall under that category. At the end of the note Fitzgerald claims that all royalties are being donated to various American Indian causes. We’ll have to take him at his word on that.
The story itself is an interesting look at the Sioux way of life and follows Eastman through the first 15 or so years of his life. The text is fairly short which really makes it best suited to young audiences (first and second grade, probably even kindergarten). In some places I was left wanting more information and detail. That is part of the purpose of the book, but I do think there could have been a little bit more. It paints an idyllic and fun life for a child with hours of play and learning skills like tracking and hunting. But he also shares times that the families went hungry. I do wish the story had continued further and addressed some of his time being schooled in the white town he moves to with his father.
The illustrations are pretty and are reminiscent of Paul Goble’s illustrations. I am not familiar with art from those nations or that area and the similarity makes me wonder if it copies a style seen in Sioux art. There is a page of notes on the illustrations that explains what objects in the illustrations are and their significance. I’m a little put off by the last picture that, according to the notes, is an “imaginative image of Eastman”. It hits a little close to stereotypes, even if its depiction is accurate.
I have mixed feelings about them using Ohiyesa’s white name as the author and including his given name in parentheses. I am glad they included it, but I am left wondering which he would have preferred and which is more culturally appropriate (I suspect the given name).
The reason I reviewed this book, beyond it being interesting, was that I am looking for materials for our third grade class which studies the Sioux. While I am not qualified to make decisive judgements on books about Native Nations, I have to make some calls on what materials to purchase. I think for a general collection this would make a great addition. It’s a little idyllic, but taking into account the fact that it’s true and the book’s notes outside the text, it seems well rounded. I also think it would make an appropriate addition to a home or classroom library for the same reasons. I prefer something like this over presenting made up “native American” legends or stories that are told by outsiders. I am going to pass it along to our third grade teachers, but I suspect the text itself may be a little bare bones for their tastes. I would recommend using it in a classroom in conjunction with both other materials (maybe even Eastman’s original books) and being sure to read the notes and foreword together.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Young John Coltrane was all ears. And there was a lot to hear growing up in the South in the 1930s: preachers praying, music on the radio, the bustling of the household. These vivid noises shaped John’s own sound as a musician.
This one is perfect for introducing both jazz and John Coltrane to a younger audience. Think Kindergarten. It would make an excellent read aloud, because it has great rhythm. The first line/title is repeated on each page and is followed by a few simple lines that give a glimpse into Coltrane’s life.
Art feels cozy and intimate because it isn’t busy. Colors alternate between warm and cool tones with a few splashes thrown on opposite pages. Young Coltrane is so charming with his big head and sweet expressions.
The end is followed up with an informative note that fills in more of the story. You could share this information as you see fit, depending on the audience. His life was not easy. He lost his grandparents, aunt, and father in a short time which threw the family into economic distress. His mother moved to Philadelphia leaving John behind to live in their house that they rented out to boarders. As an adult he abused alcohol and drugs, but did recover only to die at 40 from liver problems.
What really shines in the book is the idea that it was the everyday recognizable things that made John great, not something he was born with. He did eventually pick up instruments and he clearly had innate talent there, but until he really started playing he listened to the world around him and absorbed it all.
An excellent addition to jazz collections for lower school readers.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When Ella Fitzgerald danced the Lindy Hop on the streets of 1930s Yonkers, passersby said good-bye to their loose change. But for a girl who was orphaned and hungry, with raggedy clothes and often no place to spend the night, small change was not enough. One amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ella made a discovery: the dancing beat in her feet could travel up and out of her mouth in a powerful song —and the feeling of being listened to was like a salve to her heart.
Wow! This book really brought Ella Fitzgerald to life. It was a slow build, and it was rather long, but well worth the read.
Instead of focusing on Ella’s successful career or the entirety of her life, Skit-Scat looks at her teenage years. She grew up in Yonkers and loved to dance. She and her friend Charlie would dance on the street corner where they earned a few cents. At 14 her mother died suddenly and this began a spiral downwards for Ella. She lived with an “unkind” step father (the book does not specify what that meant) and was then taken in by a cold and austere aunt. She got into some trouble with the law and was then sent to an abysmal orphan school. After two years of abuse, Ella ran away and couch surfed and lived on the street in Harlem. It doesn’t specify if or how she made money during that time, but it was the Depression and money was tight for everyone. She began trying out at amateur nights at clubs and won two contests.
Unfortunately she was rough around the edges in second hand clothes, messy hair, and dirty. This made it hard to find work with bands who expected her to be presentable. No easy prospect for a homeless teen. Fortunately her talent landed her a job with the Chick Webb Band and they saw past her exterior and helped clean her up. I was so surprised that Fitzgerald was homeless and abused. It isn’t the story you usually picture or hear about her. It breaks your heart, but her story is also very uplifting. A true rags to riches tale.
The writing, despite being long, was engaging. It has little interjections like “clink, plink, roll” and “ding a-ding a-ding” that add some of the verve of jazz in the 30s to the text. In my personal opinion, I wish the illustrations were a little more brightly colored, but Qualls’ illustrations are always lively and expressive. Definitely worth adding to a biography collection. It’s a little long for a read aloud during a storytime, but would make a great addition to a classroom curriculum that studies music, jazz, the arts, the Depression, or African Americans.