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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Biography Review: Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

On 01, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CarverCarver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

From Goodreads: George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri about 1864 and was raised by the childless white couple who had owned his mother. In 1877 he left home in search of an education, eventually earning a master’s degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to start the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute, where he spent the rest of his life seeking solutions to the poverty among landless black farmers by developing new uses for soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Carver’s achievements as a botanist and inventor were balanced by his gifts as a painter, musician, and teacher.

This was an incredible and eye-opening book. Unsurprisingly I learned nothing about Carver in my history classes and I’m pretty sure no one is explicitly studying him in any of our current social studies curriculums. Such a shame because he was a fascinating figure. While relegated to terrible jobs on chicken farms because of the pervasive racism at the time he did some incredible research into soil science and farming. All of it was inspired by a desire to help poor black people raise themselves out of poverty and do a better job farming. Carver is best known for peanut butter, I think, but there was SO much more to his studies.

I love novels in verse and this was an wonderful way to open up the history here. Carver really came to life on the page as did the times he lived in. Nelson’s work is always worth reading, but especially this book.

A heads up: the n-word appears in one (possibly two) of the poems. In context I think it makes sense, so it isn’t gratuitous use of the word. The inclusion of the word didn’t make or break my decision not to purchase the book, either. I do hesitate, however, to have materials with slurs or with stereotyped/racist content and depictions on our shelves because our students are not having conversations around that material, particularly the materials they pick up in the library (they take them home, read them on their own, and return them). Instead of learning about the power of words (or images) and how hurtful they can be and how they can be used intentionally to hurt and oppress others, they are simply internalizing those images and words. And that is insidious. It eats away at their ability to call out racism (and other -isms) and see how it truly influences our world.

More to the point, though, for buying this for an elementary school library, is the reading ability required to follow the narrative. The poems aren’t totally straight forward. It’s free verse, but the mix of narrators and settings made it a little harder to follow. This makes for a deep reading experience, but one that I think is above even my fifth grader’s heads. Sometimes I can make the case that strong fourth grade readers and fifth graders can handle a book that is more middle school (Almost Astronauts for example, or Moonbird), but with the verse format in Carver, I think they would really struggle.

I would have no hesitation buying this book for a middle or high school library, however. I would highly recommend it for an English and/or history class to use too. There is so much good information and history and writing here. So much!

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Surfer of the Century by Ellie Crowe

On 18, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Surfer of the CenturySurfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku written by Ellie Crowe, illustrated by Richard Waldrep

From Goodreads: The true story of Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, six-time Olympic swimming champion and legendary surfer who popularized surfing around the world.

Considering our diversity numbers in our biography collection, I was surprised we had a copy of this in the library. It’s been on my TBR pile for about a year now and I decided to pick it up just before the end of school and see if it might work for our summer reading lists.

I think kids will really enjoy the story because Kahanamoku was very driven and inspiring. When he couldn’t get into the local surf club because he was native Hawaiian, he and his friends made their own. When he wanted to swim, he hopped in the water and invented a new technique to make himself swim faster. He much preferred being in the water to being in school and I think we all know kids who will relate to that! Be sure to read the notes at the back. The story of how he met his wife is both funny, touching, and surprising.

Besides being a refreshing and much needed book about a Native Hawaiian , a woefully underrepresented culture in children’s literature, that doesn’t involve the hula and coconut palms this is also a book about sports we don’t see a lot of, namely swimming and surfing. I am sure there are plenty of students in my library who, at the very least, swim and would love to see that interest in some of their books. (E.g. we have a lot of baseball and basketball and even quite a bit of football, but not many other sports on our shelves.) I can’t speak to how well it portrays Native Hawaiians, but it does address the discrimination that Kahanamoku faced particularly in sports/swimming. It isn’t unlike many of the African American sports figures from the same era and I highly recommend pairing it with books about Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and others.

I loved the illustrations in the book. Something about the technique and color palette that gives it a fun, summery feel. It is a picture book biography which means there is a fair amount of text, so in terms of reading level and attention span this is best suited to fourth grade and up but could certainly be read to younger audiences if there is interest. This is the perfect addition to any summer reading list. Not only is Kahanamoku worth reading about, but who doesn’t want to read about swimming, Hawaii, and surfing in the summer?

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Cesar: Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! by Carmen Bernier-Grand

On 17, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CesarCesar: Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! written by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by David Diaz

From Goodreads: Born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, César Chavez lived the hard-scrabble life of a migrant worker during the depression. He grew to be a charismatic leader and founded the National Farm Workers Association, an organization that fought for basic rights for his fellow farm workers.

This is a book we already have in our library and I’m very glad we do. Not only is it a great poetry and picture book biography, but I think in California it’s especially important we have materials on Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers.

I absolutely love Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull and read it out loud to my second and third grade students this past year around Cesar Chavez day. None of them were aware of who Chavez was or what he had done. They were only vaguely aware of the migrant farm workers who plant, tend and pick most of our produce. And we live in California’s Central Valley. Our curriculum does a good job of talking about and presenting slavery and even the Civil Rights Movement (thanks to our music teacher, of all people) but we don’t talk much about the struggles of people other than African Americans.


In Cesar the poems got a bit confusing in the middle of Cesar’s life, but either with a little background information (provided by the author’s notes in the back or a teacher) kids won’t have any trouble getting through. Not only does poetry let children approach difficult topics, it can also makes reading feel like a breeze. Short lines, few words on a page, and rhythm and rhyme help those reluctant and struggling readers through a whole book. And yet, it conveys so much. So much emotion and information and story.

I think Cesar is worth having in most library collections, but I would recommend making sure you have more resources about either Chavez or the fight for farm workers. I also recommend having Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh about Sylvia Mendez. All these books together, in a small strong collection, will give students a more complete picture of the struggle for civil rights and more awareness about where their food comes from.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes

On 05, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ten DaysTen Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes

From Goodreads: Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.
Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.

I actually picked this up to see if it might work for our lower school biography collection and I think it might. The length isn’t bad (we have longer, drier biographies on the shelf) and there isn’t anything particularly shocking in it (Bly is asked at one point if she is a nightwalker, but it’s such a brief mention that it will probably pass most younger kids by). Really, though, the book is just so gripping I can totally see some of my older students getting sucked in. We have a picture book biography of Nellie and she’s a fascinating female character that rather broke with convention in her time. I think this would be a good place to go from that picture book if the kids are interested in learning more.

There is the issue of the care of the “insane”. This is Nellie’s reason for becoming a madwoman. She wanted to write an expose on how female patients were treated in the facilities that “cared” for women that were deemed insane. These women were abused. Many were not insane at all, but did not fit within societal expectation. It’s not a pretty scene that Nellie shows the world and while this is clearly written for children, it’s not a pretty scene that readers will discover. Kids will love to feel the outrage that Nellie felt over the conditions she reported on. Lucky for Nellie she was always going to get out. The book could certainly open up a lot of conversations about treatment of the mentally ill (something we are better at to be sure, but are still sadly lacking in) and unfair restrictions and expectations placed on women.

There is a lot about Nellie Bly in this book. Information about her childhood and her career. Nellie herself struggled with the low expectations for women of her era. She chaffed against them, but she was also able to rise to the challenge and find ways to make a living and buck convention. She was really quite interesting and I’m sure her story will fascinate any reader who picks this book up. A good one for an upper elementary and middle school biography collection.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Draw What You See by Kathleen Benson Haskins

On 02, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Draw What You SeeDraw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews written by Kathleen Benson Haskins, illustrated by Benny Andrews

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.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan

On 22, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

No titleRiding Freedom written by Pam Munoz Ryan, pictures by Brian Selznick

From GoodReads: In this fast-paced, courageous, and inspiring story, readers adventure with Charlotte Parkhurst as she first finds work as a stable hand, becomes a famous stage-coach driver (performing brave feats and outwitting bandits), finds love as a woman but later resumes her identity as a man after the loss of a baby and the tragic death of her husband, and ultimately settles out west on the farm she’d dreamed of having since childhood. It wasn’t until after her death that anyone discovered she was a woman.

This one could actually be a chapter book based on it’s length, larger format, and the pictures scattered throughout. The reading level is a 720L, which isn’t especially high.

Beware a horse dies right at the beginning. It’s not overly dramatic or gory or anything. She just dies of a fever, but for those tender-hearted readers this may be difficult.

Okay I included the description which I got off GoodReads, but assume came from the publisher. But it’s so far off the mark. All that stuff about finding love, having a baby, resuming her identity as a man- NONE OF IT IS IN THE BOOK. Not even in the author’s note where Ryan gives a little more history of Charley. Did the publisher not read the book? I’m confused.

The book follows Charlotte through her years at the orphanage where she is put to work and treated poorly. When her best friend, Hayward, is adopted she decides to run away and make a new life for herself. In forming the plan, she realizes she’ll have better prospects and more safety if she travels as a man. After hopping the stage coach Charley, as she renames herself, finds work as a stable hand and works her way up to being a stage coach driver. This job takes her from Rhode Island all the way out to California where she loses an eye and has to relearn driving “six-in-the-hand”. Eventually she saves up enough money to buy land and horses. She also decides to vote since everyone believes her to be a man.

Ryan has taken a story that is already very interesting and compressed it’s timeline to make it more accessible to younger readers. Riding Freedom is not a biography, but a fictionalized account of Charlotte’s life and I think it would really appeal to third and fourth grade readers. It’s not exactly packed with facts, but there is a good story and enough that I could see it inspiring kids to want to explore more about Charlotte, women’s rights and the Gold Rush.

Charley/Charlotte Parkhurst was an interesting woman/man. From my limited research, I can’t tell if she was dressed and passing as a man because she wanted better opportunities or if she genuinely felt like she was male. Either way, she was fascinating. Here’s the Wikipedia page about her which provides a little more information than the author’s note at the end of the book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews

On 03, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

TromboneTrombone Shorty written by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Colliers

From GoodReads: Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Along with esteemed illustrator Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a lively picture book autobiography about how he followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom.

Troy AndrewsI just love this book. The illustrations are gorgeous with lots of fun details that make them pop off the page (like the cover). The story has rhythm and how can you resist the picture in the Author’s Note of Troy Andrews, who looks to be about three feet tall, with this ridiculously long trombone?

Music definitely infuses the story, from the repeated refrain “Where y’at? Where y’at?” to the great analogies he uses to describe how he made music. Music was always in his home and in his neighborhood.

The message of the next generation carrying on the musical tradition of New Orleans is also very appealing. I think stories that are positive and encourage kids to both keep their roots and forge ahead are very inspiring. They tell children that they have something of value to offer the world and I don’t think that message is given out very often. Plus Andrews has such a can-do attitude about music. It was just in him and he sought out opportunities to make it and enjoy it. He and his friends made their own band and their own instruments and . The fact that he didn’t need much, or any money and things, to get started following his dream is incredibly refreshing and inspiring. Especially with this generation of children that are so heavily marketed to.

A great addition to any biography collection and a great read aloud for kids of all ages.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell

On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

JosephineJosephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

From GoodReads: In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine’s powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.

Josephine is the perfect example of what picture book biographies should be. For starters it really includes good information about her. After finishing it I felt like I had a good sense of the events in her life as well as who she was. Sure, this isn’t the definitive biography, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a student use it in a report. Plus it was meaty enough without feeling like you’re reading something for a report.

The book needs to be taken as a whole package. Every element works so well together. The story of her life is broken out into chapters which are introduced with a two page spread of a curtain rising on a new set. Perfect for the stage-loving Josephine. Every so often there is a two page spread that is just a colored background with text on it. This is particularly effective for getting information across without feeling like a dry page of text. The writing is also very lyrical making it incredibly readable.

Robinson’s illustrations are beautifully stylized and Josephine is always recognizable by her large, elongated eyes. The bold solid colored backgrounds make the modern, graphical figures pop off the page. The illustrations feel old and new at the same time, like something from the sixties but with fresh, bright colors.

And Josephine was such an amazing person. She is a true rags to riches story, but she also worked tirelessly to fight against segregation and the prevailing attitude in the US at the time that blacks were inferior to whites. She practiced what she preached too, insisting that audiences be mixed and adopting 12 children all of different ethnicities. She’s just an interesting person to read about. Flashy and energetic, quirky and confident Josephine’s life was anything but average.

I haven’t seen such a good use of typeface in a picture book in a long time (ever?). The author pulls out words and makes them all caps emphasizing them. But they aren’t random words. They’re words with significance for the scene, the story, and for discovering who Josephine was. There are also quotes from Josephine throughout the text and these are printed in an entirely different (and fancier) font that is much larger. I think that emphasizes Josephine’s larger-than-life presence as well as making it clear they are her words. Other books have attempted mixed fonts and it just ends up looking like a sloppy ransom note. Not here. This looks polished, intentional, and adds to the story.

My one regret about the book is that there wasn’t any information about what happened to her children and her siblings. I’m a nosy person and I like to know about anyone mentioned in the text. But the book isn’t about her family. It’s about her and it does a fantastic job of sharing that story and sharing who she was. As I said, I would recommend this to kids writing biography reports. It’s fairly long so it would be better for upper elementary, but there isn’t any reason a middle schooler couldn’t pick this up and read it either for pleasure or for research. It’s a slightly smaller format than a normal picture book making it a little more appealing to older kids who might not want the stigma of reading a book with pictures. Highly recommended!

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Wangari Maathai written by Franck Prevot

On 16, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Wangari MaathaiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees written by Franck Prevot, illustrated by Aurelia Fronty

From GoodReads: Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to lead women in a nonviolent struggle to bring peace and democracy to Africa through its reforestation. Her organization planted over thirty million trees in thirty years. This beautiful picture book tells the story of an amazing woman and an inspiring idea.

I originally picked this one up because of the art. It’s so lush and vibrant. It has this very modern vibe to it too, with the elongated eyes and tiny ink details on leaves, people, and textiles. Particularly striking about the two page illustration spreads are the background colors. They range from deep blues to pink to red to the yellow-green seen on the cover. It really makes even the more stripped down illustrations pop. They do a wonderful job of setting the tone of each page and passage. The pictures really draw you into the story.

I had not heard of Wangari Maathai before reading this (even grown ups can learn from picture books!), but her story is incredibly inspiring. I think it really stresses the importance of a good education, something Maathai was incredibly lucky to get. Her education exposed her to a wider world and it also inspired her to do something about the destruction of trees and the environment. Her story also shows that one person, if they use their wits, intelligence and determination plus a lot of elbow grease, can change the world. Maathai didn’t do it all on her own, but she was the flash point and she started the Green Belt Movement when she couldn’t get the government to support her or move quickly enough.

I really like the picture book biography trend. I don’t actually know if there are more being published, but I’ve certainly noticed and read a lot of them lately. They’re great for the third-fourth grade range and even really up into fifth. They can be so engaging in the way a dry chapter book is not, especially if they are well illustrated. I would encourage their use in biography projects in school because they contain good information and also because it will encourage students to use more than one resource in their reports. I’m tired of projects where kids are handed one book and write their entire report from that book. It hits a little too close to plagiarism and it isn’t exactly reflective of the real research process. And if single book research is done for the sake of time I think the project is about the product and not the learning process it should be providing (sorry for the tangential rant!) and that’s a problem too.

Head’s up, this book has a very high reading level. It’s somewhere around the sixth grade, so a younger reader might struggle to get through this on their own. Which isn’t, of course, to say a younger reader wouldn’t be interested. Just that if you push it below third grade or so it should be a read aloud with lots of discussion.

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