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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Royal Alphabets by Maame Serwaa

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

The Royal Alphabets: A Collection of African Empires in World History written by by Maame Serwaa, illustrated by Fleance Forkuo

From Goodreads: Take a trip back to the riches of African history and brace yourself as this book utilizes the alphabets to educate readers on pre-colonial Africa. The Royal Alphabets is a unique and positive representation of Africa and its many cultures dating back thousands of years and into present time. In this captivating book, readers will learn of Royal figures throughout the continent as well as gain understanding of the importance of African history as it relates to the rest of the world. This page turner is sure to leave readers enlightened and curious for more.

I consider myself lucky. In my sophomore year of high school we studied “World Cultures” in our history class. This started with the three famous empires of West Africa (Mali, Ghana, and Songhai). It then continued into China and only China. The previous year was Ancient History- Egypt, Greece, and Rome- and while you might think Egypt opened up the ability to look at African and Middle Eastern cultures, you would be wrong. It was very whitewashed. The following years focused on U.S. history and European history, the later of which conveniently started after 1300 AD and after much contact with non-white empires had occurred. I think it’s telling that the single year we studied “the World” was actually a very small snapshot of the diversity of peoples and cultures that have lived on this planet across time (but it is not a coincidence).

In college I took anthropology and history classes that focused on West Africa, the Southern Pacific islands, and Indonesia. But once again, a lot of it was both contemporary and seen through the lens of colonization. I am forever grateful I had any and all those classes despite their flaws because they planted the seeds that the World is not White by default nor a place where White people were the only ones to create history or civilization.

And yet, knowing this, I am still stymied as a parent trying to find ways to teach my kids about history that doesn’t involve the slave trade or Black folks being enslaved. (As a White parent I am talking about those things with my kids, but just as Black parents want their children to know about the rich history of Black and African people, I do too, although maybe not for the same reasons.)

All of this is a long, roundabout way of getting to the book The Royal Alphabets which features twenty six kings, queens, armies and empires of African civilizations. This is another important book from Melanin Origins and author Maame Serwaa. Each letter entry has tiny tidbits of information about the historical figure, figures, or empire. In some ways I wish there was more, but I think as with many of Melanin Origins books, they aren’t complete history lessons. Just good introductions that encourage the reader to follow their curiosity to research and learn more. The book brings to mind From Ashanti to Zulu, which is quite lovely, but also incredibly boring and isn’t without its own issues of representation. I think Royal Alphabets strikes the perfect balance between giving information and keeping it moving. My own daughter was really excited about the Dohemian Female Army because she made the connection to the Dora Milaje from Black Panther.

I know I say this all the time, but here is another book that should be on your shelves. Black parents can use this as a confidence builder around culture and Micah and Myra, the two narrators, say as much in their introduction. Black and African people have accomplished so much through the ages, but traditional education has completely erased their contributions or reduced them to slavery and the Civil Rights Era and maybe peanut butter. Other students of color and White students will also be better off knowing that it wasn’t only White, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual men who accomplished things and are worthy of history books.

I think all types of libraries can find a place for this in their collections. Schools should, of course, be committed to giving students access to a robust history curriculum and resources. Public libraries I am sure have families of all stripes that would like to share these people and accomplishments with their children. Home libraries, daycares, classrooms all have the same commitments and audiences, too.

I have one criticism of the book, the entry on Sundiata Keita. He was physically disabled and the entry on him uses the word “crippled”, which is a word that can be hurtful in the disabled community as it has been used as a slur. It also says he “overcame” his disability. I think it might be more accurate and less ableist to say he was both physically disabled and a successful, just, strong king. Overcoming implies that it was something that was deficient in him, which considering his power, fame, and success, he was clearly not at a deficit. Despite this, the rest of the book is strong and necessary. Maybe subsequent editions of the book can change the language a bit?

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy by the publisher, Melanin Origins, in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):

  • On Amazon: paperback, hardback, and ebook.
  • On IndieBound: paperback and hardback.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: K is for Kahlo by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 07, Nov 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

K is for KahloK is for Kahlo written by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, pictures by Howell Edwards Creative

From Goodreads: K is for Kahlo is an artistic tour of the alphabet featuring notable artists from all around the globe. From painters to sculptors to muralists to architects, explore the creativity of some of the most influential artists in this vibrant and unique take on the abc’s.

Normally I’m a little confused by ABC books. What exactly is their purpose? Their content seems to be aimed at the three and under set, kids who aren’t really learning letters yet per se. Add to this that a lot of them use words that do not correctly represent the sound the letter makes (e.g. using owl for “o” or giraffe for “g”), so they’re not particularly helpful even if a kid was learning their letters. And by the time kids are actually learning their ABCs to employ in the process of reading, they’re past the simplicity of an ABC book.

K is for Kahlo, on the other hand, turns the ABC book format on it’s head. Pizzoli, of Tallulah brilliance, has employed the ABC form in a way that makes perfect sense. She takes the form and gives it function. Each letter is associated with an artist and features the letter clearly written and a stylized image of their face. The illustrations are lovely and simple and make this an excellent choice to share with babies and toddlers who love to look at faces. My seven month old was quite captivated by it and kept chuckling as we turned the pages and gazed at the new faces (she also tried to eat it, so I wish this came in a board book format).

There is a great mix of artists here (male, female, contemporary, old masters, a variety of national origins), meaning it’s not just a list of old Eurpopean white dudes. There’s even a nod to Pizzoli’s friend and artist Elena Tommasi-Ferroni who has illustrated a few of Pizzol’s books include the beautiful Fatou and the Kora. Which makes this perfect for older children, it can spark conversations about all these different artists. Blessedly Pizzoli has included a two-page spread at the back that gives the full name, dates, and one or two sentence description of each artist. “B is for Basquiat” led my seven year old to pull out our copy of Radiant Child and of course a quick Google search showed various pieces by each of the artists she was curious about.

This is yet another book that’s appropriate for classroom libraries, school libraries, home libraries, and public libraries alike. I could see classrooms using this book in an art center or even with a self-portrait project or station. For small collections skip the commercialized and terrible ABC books and get one or two that open up conversation around the content and not the letters.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: My ABC’s by John W. Ensley II

On 08, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

My ABCsMy ABC’s written by John W. Ensley II, M.Ed., illustrated by Wesley Van Eeden

Published by Melanin Origins

From Goodreads: My ABC’s is an English alphabet learning tool that provides images associated with the cradle of civilization. This book provides a fun, colorful way for children to learn the alphabet and a little more about African culture in a manner unseen before.

Here’s the ABC book for all you modern parents with a clean aesthetic. This is such a beautiful book from a graphic standpoint (also from a bookish standpoint). The colors you see on the cover are the entirety of the color palette and it makes for a very clean, easy-on-the-eyes, but not boring, visual experience. It feels like something you’d see in one of those impossibly fancy Midcentury home magazines or on some hipster baby’s bookshelf. Each letter stands out boldly in white on the page with a red line inside it. If you’re using this in storytime, the classroom, or with your own child, have the kids run their finger along the red line to learn the shape of each letter.

From an educational standpoint this book avoids the pitfalls that many (most?) ABC books, cards, and products fall into. The vowels! So often I find alphabets that have a mix of long and short vowel sounds. Worse yet, sometimes they have indistinct vowel sounds such as when the “a” is mixed with an “r” or some other letter that changes the vowel sound enough that it’s impossible for children to isolate the sound. Books that do this may be beautiful or even amazing, but they’re functionally useless. Not so here. Each vowel is paired with the short vowel sound making it beautiful and useful. Then there are the letters that can have more than one sound! I have a number of alphabet books that have “g is for giraffe”. True, but only in writing. Otherwise the “g” is making the “j” sound. This is incredibly confusing for children trying to learn letter-sound correspondence. Again, My ABC’s comes through. The letter sounds are clear and easy to hear. Well, actually the letter “c” cleverly uses the word “circle”, a “c” word that features both sounds the letter makes.

Some letters have fairly generic words associated with them (“umbrella” and “vegetable”) but when they are embedded in an afrocentric alphabet that features “b for braid” and a picture of a man with braided hair or “s is for sankofa” they take on a far less generic significance. They can also be opportunities for discussing how these words relate to African and African American culture. For example, here in Sacramento we have a black-owned, urban farm in one of our historically black neighborhoods. The owners offer education and food to the community it’s nestled in. What a great conversation to have in a classroom or at storytime that can promote local entrepreneurship and community. Some letters celebrate African culture, again “sankofa”, while others celebrate important goals like “education” and “graduate” that show, respectively, a black man and black woman achieving these things.

I sound like a broken record hitting this idea again and again in my reviews of books with diverse content (read: books with few or no white people), but I’ll say it again because apparently people still don’t get it. There is something here for every reader. You do not have to be black to enjoy or appreciate or need this book. First off, it’s an ABC book. There are a ton of them out there, the vast vast majority of them are mediocre at best. Alphabet books are great well into the early elementary years as kids learn to recognize shapes, letters, letter sounds, and then eventually need help remembering how to write a letter (especially directions of some letters like “b” and “d”). Why not have one that celebrates African culture? Better yet, why not one that celebrates African culture AND is gorgeous? Secondly, the book celebrates Africa, African culture, and black people. African American children need to see themselves positively represented in books and quite frankly white children need to see that too.

The book is available in both paperback and hardback. I recommend the hardback considering the age of kids that will be reading the book, it’s just that much sturdier. School libraries and libraries that serve young children should have this one and need to promote it. I assure you, there are plenty of those mediocre alphabet books on your shelves already, so there’s no reason not to have this excellent ABC book there to outshine the others. Families should also consider this one for their collections. It can open up a lot of interesting conversations for all families around the various things represented by the letters.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):

On IndieBound: paperback and hardback

On Amazon as an ebook.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I also bought myself a copy because I want to read this to my daughters.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Numbers With Bella by Lorraine O’Garro

On 11, Sep 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Numbers With BellaNumbers With Bella written by Lorraine O’Garro, illustrated by Katlego Kgabale

From Goodreads: Following the success of The Alphabet with Bella, this book supports the learning of numbers from one to ten in a unique and colourful way. Numbers with Bella is full of fun learning opportunities for small children.

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher Melanin Origins in exchange for an honest review.

The first thing that came to mind with this book was one of my favorites as a child, Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang. I have stacks of counting and alphabet books, but the majority of them feature animals or white children. I think Bella brought to mind Ten, Nine, Eight because they both stick out to me for featuring a little African American girl. The final page where Bella sits wiggling her toes, recently liberated from her shoes, also felt like a nod to the classic counting book. It’s really refreshing to see representation making its way into all genres of children’s literature, from chapter books to picture books to concept books like Bella. Kids of all type deserve to see themselves everywhere, not just in certain narratives or certain genres.

The basic idea of the book is Bella counting a variety of objects from 1-10. Each number has its own two page spread. A white background makes Bella standout and we see the written word for each number, the numeral, and the designated number of objects. A few pages have some additional setting, but for the most part the illustrations are spare. From page to page we see her happily lounging in the sun, joyfully playing a drum, snorkeling, juggling coconuts, and a variety of other activities. While some might not like the lack of busy backgrounds and extra detail, the clean simplicity of this book make it perfect for sharing with very young children interested in counting. It’s a true learning tool. When reading the book with your child be sure to point out the numeral and then count each of the items with Bella before moving on to the next page. The simplicity also make it ideal for children to flip through on their own once having the counting modeled for them.

I could also see this working well in stations or provocations in classrooms (or even enlightened libraries that have book-related activities out for children). Set it out with number cards and counters. As kids flip through the pages they can set up the matching numeral and the corresponding number of counters. They could also place the counters directly on the page as they count out loud.

Bella is totally adorable and I see kids being drawn to her and her counting antics. This would make a great addition to concept book collections in preschool classrooms, daycares, and libraries that serve young patrons.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):

On IndieBound: paperback and hardback

On Amazon as an ebook.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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