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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: How Mamas Love Their Babies by Juniper Fitzgerald

On 24, May 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

How Mamas Love Their BabiesHow Mamas Love Their Babies written by Juniper Fitzgerald, illustrated by Elise Peterson

From Goodreads: Illustrating different ways that mothers provide for their children—including dancing at a strip club—this children’s book is the first to depict a sex-worker parent. By introducing and normalizing the idea of bodily labor, it provides an expanded notion of working mothers overall, and challenges the idea that only some types of work result in good or appropriate parenting.

I already hear the arguments about not having this book on the kids shelves in libraries. And they’re all nonsense. Parents who work to provide for their kids deserve to be celebrated no matter how they do that. If you’re uncomfortable reading about a mother who dances to put food on the table and care for their children, you should look long and hard at your biases.

I loved the book because it celebrates mothers who work and mothers who stay home, and the myriad things mothers do to care for their children. There are pilots, farmers, house cleaners, artists, office workers, and dancers. Parents provide for their kids in the ways that they can and sex work is legitimate work. Entertainment is legitimate work. The book doesn’t get graphic about what a mother who dances all night might be doing or not doing making it an age-appropriate representation of the variety of jobs moms hold to put food on the table, shoes on their kids’ feet, and a roof over their heads.

It’s hard work being a parent (and a mom)* and I love that this book recognizes that and explains that it is because of this hard work that moms “helps their babies grow” and “helps their babies thrive”. There are plenty of books out there that present this syrupy, saccharine picture of motherhood. Books that glorify the self sacrificing that can come with motherhood. A picture that essentially upholds the white supremacy derivative patriarchy. I’m not saying some of those books haven’t hit me right in the feels, but they also feel kind of like they’re indoctrinating our boys to expect women to be nurturing and subservient and our girls to be those things. How Mamas Love Their Babies points out that being a mom is hard work and we do that hard work for the good of our children without making us seem like saints or like this is the only value we bring to the world.

I was also really drawn to this book for the illustrations. They’re this collage of vintage black and white photographs, many of which have been cut up and colored on, paper and that tomato soup colored texture you see in the background of the cover. I think the texture really ties it all together when it might feel a little all over the place. The photos are equal parts sweet and charming and real and, even better, they feature a variety of people- Black, brown, and White. I especially love the collages that incorporate women holding signs at protests/rallies. Signs that read “We need day care centers” and “Unfair to strippers”.

This is the book I want to be reading on Mother’s Day with my girls. And, you know what? It was. And I explained what a stripper was to my older daughter. And I personally felt validated by this book.

So, I know this book is going to be a hard sell in a lot of libraries. I know. Remember I quit my last job over a book about immigration and refugees. Sex workers are something that are even more taboo and stigmatized. That is also exactly why it needs to be on our shelves. Kids need books that celebrate mothers in this way and they need to see that all work mothers do is legitimate and good whether or not their moms dance all night in special shoes or go to the office from 9-5. If you work in a public library you won’t know what all your parents do for a living, so you may very well have sex workers with children in your population. Quite frankly the same is true in many school libraries too. To librarians in private school libraries, this is one of those times that you are going to have to stand up for representation. You can’t be fine with books that glorify settler colonialism, but not be okay with books that show the dignity of working parents regardless of their profession. Plus, how validating for those parents and children to finally see their families in a book.

*I’m a little torn using the term motherhood because I know not all mothers identify as female or as mothers, but the book has mother in the title, refers to mothers throughout the text, and uses pictures of people who present very female. I’m kind of going along with that…but I also recognize that might be leaving out other folks and I’m not quite sure how to incorporate that experience into a book that so specifically talks about mothers.

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: Dreaming Their Way Out by Leonard Williams

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

Dreaming Their Way OutDreaming Their Way Out written by Leonard Williams, illustrated by Ohana Tozato

From Goodreads: Dreaming Their Way Out is about seven orphans who are desperately yearning for a family. One night when they dreamed about escaping the orphanage something indescribable happens. They do not realize that this discovery will change their lives forever.

Dreaming Their Way Out felt like pure wish fulfillment. Seven children are in a nun-operated orphanage, Roald Dahl style. They have to do all the hard work around the house and Sister Agatha is using them to earn money. Thankfully there does not appear to be any physical violence against the children and we don’t know why the children are orphaned (so no violent or tragic stories about their parents explicitly spelled out). One night, after another tedious and unpleasant day, in a shower of silver sparkles the kids meet a group of adults with wings. They discover that these people are their guardians and they take them off to a magical dream land where they eat good food, play with animals, and fly around magnificent natural places. Now that the children know they can spend time with the grown ups who care for and about them and can visit such a spectacular world they can’t wait to get through the days and dream their way out.

I certainly see this appealing to dreamy kids with their heads in the clouds. I’ll be honest, I was a day-dreamy kid growing up and had all kinds of wild fantasies that involved wild narratives like living in the woods, living on a farm, being able to talk to animals. And each of these stories I made up in my head did not involve parents and had limited adult roles in them. I could see a kid like myself eating this story up. I could even see it inspiring kids to write their own fantastical, hopeful, warm stories.

In terms of handing this to a kid in the foster system or a kid who is up for adoption or has been adopted, I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’m not well versed enough in the issues of foster care and adoption to say how this story aligns with the treatment they receive, any stigma there might be against them, or if this kind of narrative is harmful. I would say proceed with caution. I only recently became aware of adoption kidlit as a genre and how problematic it can be. Is this different because it’s just so winsome? Again, I don’t feel qualified to say for sure. As with all books don’t treat it like something only a child with that type of story would enjoy. All kids can benefit for books with stories different than their own.

I do really appreciate that a story with such fantastical, magical adventures features seven kids of color. This is so rare and such a gap that needs filling in kidlit.

The book was a little on the long side which would make it better suited to reading with one or two kids at a time. But that also makes it a good fit for classroom and school libraries where kids check books out and have them to either take home or read over more than one sitting. The language isn’t terribly difficult which would make it accessible to a second or third grader.

The story ends on a high note, but also with a “to be continued…”. I’ll be curious to see what other magical adventures this group of friends finds in the years to come.

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: LaDonna Plays Hoops by Kimberly Gordon Biddle

On 29, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LaDonna Plays HoopsLaDonna Plays Hoops written by Kimberly A. Gordon Biddle, illustrated by Heath Gray

From Goodreads: This is an inspirational and contemporary story of a young, African-American girl who goes to visit her grandma for a family reunion. While there, she tries to become the family hoops star. She wonders if she has the skill and the will. The story presents subtle, everyday events that teach life lessons.

Two years ago LaDonna played her cousin Tyrone in basketball and lost. That loss stung and now, two years older and wiser, she wants a rematch. Or at least she thinks she does. Her dad reminds her that whether or not she wins or loses, the practice will be good for her. LaDonna is by turns confident that she’ll beat Tyrone and nervous that she won’t be able to. She’s grown in the last two years and even gone to basketball camp, but Tyrone is also bigger and has more practice under his belt. He rather rudely reminds her that he plays on a basketball league. Fortunately, LaDonna doesn’t let a scraped knee or her nerves get the best of her and she handily wins the match.

This was such a fun read with lots to love. LaDonna dresses girly with leggings, a skirt, and a lot of pink, but she loves sports. She’s all confidence and swagger on the outside, but inside she’s afraid she won’t be able to take Tyrone’s title as family hoops star. Biddle clearly has a good read on kids and I love that the text and illustrations don’t paint LaDonna as anything more than a kid. So many times we see girls who like sports represented with boy clothes and body language and an all consuming confidence. Grandma calls her a tomboy at one point, but in reality LaDonna didn’t stick out from the group of kids in the family.

I also love that her whole family is clearly waiting for this rematch to happen. They all stare when Tyrone shuffles in off the basketball court to the backyard where LaDonna is jumping rope with a gaggle of other cousins. They all scowl as Tyrone tries to call a foul on LaDonna and won’t let him get away with it. And they all cheer as Tyrone meets his match. I imagine the adults of the family talking over the phone about this rematch, wondering if it will happen, who will initiate it, and speculating on who will win. I also imagine all the kids listening in on these conversations and wondering too about it. So when it comes time for the highly anticipated game, everyone is all ears and eyes. Her cousin Veronica quickly steps up to watch LaDonna’s pet frog for her during the match.

The illustrations are bright and colorful and cute. The cartoony style lends itself perfectly to such a light and funny family story. LaDonna’s family is shown to be primarily African American, but there are a few white folks in it too. Grandma lives in a clean, suburban neighborhood and it’s good to see a middle class African American family represented in kidlit. It shouldn’t be such a rarity, but it is.

The book would be great in a sports themed storytime as well as in classrooms with sports fans. Even better, the books shows that girls can enjoy and be good at basketball and all kids will benefit from being exposed to that narrative. In terms of ages, I would say first through third grade, but the lack of both racial and sporty girl representation might push this up into fourth grade. Kindergarten ages would probably be fine, especially if you learn the song that goes along with it (see below).

One last thing to add, I happen to know the author of this book through my last library and she told me she would be reading her book at a local Barnes and Noble. I took my daughter to hear the reading and get a copy signed. Not only were there cookies, stickers, coloring sheets and pencils, but Biddle has also written a little song that her husband plays on the ukulele while the two sing it during the read aloud. It was charming to say the least. And also catchy. Looking at the picture I used in this post, it seems that you can now get copies of the song to learn. 🙂

It is also worth noting that this book is available from the publisher with a special dyslexic font. I think this is both fascinating and wonderful. The story is high interest and the font can help readers who normally struggle.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Shaky Achy Tooth by Tiara Burnett Varner

On 22, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Onyx BrothersThe Adventures of the Onyx Brothers: The Shaky Achy Tooth written by Tiara Burnett Varner, illustrated by Cynthia Tapia Greene

From Goodreads: Isaiah Onyx is the youngest brother of the three Onyx brothers.  He cannot figure out why his mouth is hurting.   In this first book of The Onyx Brothers series, the brothers use teamwork to solve the mystery of Isaiah’s achy mouth.  Come along and join the Onyx Brothers as they take you on an adventure to explore, investigate, and solve life’s everyday mysteries-all while having fun!

Do you have siblings in your library? Yes? Then you need this book. This is the first, hopefully of many, books about the Onyx brothers. It starts with some introductions by the oldest, Ijalon, who informs us that this trio of brothers is creative, smart, adventurous, and amazing (how’s that for #blackboyjoy?). Ijalon is funny and readers are going to want to turn those pages to learn about the “death defying adventures and life altering experiences” he promises (well…actually, their parents forbid those kinds of antics, but these three goofy kids are sure to come up with something fun).

In this first installment the youngest is acting funny. Ijalon chalks it up to how all little kids act until he hears that Isaiah has passed up chocolate chip cookies. Ijalon immediately jumps up to help, but Elijah, the middle brother, suggests they polish off the cookies before offering their services. See? Funny! And spot on with the sibling dynamics.

Turns our Isaiah has a loose tooth that hurts, so his brothers offer to remove it. Ijalon puts on a hazmat suit and Elijah ties a string to the door knob. He looks very excited to try out this technique. They both give poor Isaiah some wild ideas about his tooth leaving his mouth. Isaiah’s imagination runs away with him and he gets more than a little nervous. Would you let them pull your tooth? Neither does Isaiah.

Fortunately mom shows up just in time to gently remove the tooth and explain what’s really going on. After she pulls the tooth with no drama, the two older brothers exchange knowing glances, reassuring each other that they at least were right about what needed to happen, even if Isaiah wouldn’t let them take care of it.

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Realistic colored pencil style drawings of the boys and their environments grace every page. I love bright, digitally enhanced illustrations, but I am a real sucker for this type of lovingly made illustration. The expressions on the boys’ faces are priceless and they really enhance the storytelling. It’s just so beautiful. Greene has a real knack for drawing people.

The book seems long, but the text on each page is mostly spare making it good for a range of audiences, including younger kids. I was surprised when my daughter lost her first tooth at five (that’s kindergarten age!) and there are plenty more to go at nearly eight years old, so you’ll get plenty of mileage out of this book at home, in the classroom, or in the library collection.

If you want the best tooth-themed storytime around, pair this with Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO. Find a nonfiction book about good brushing habits and you’re set. Paper teeth to match the achy shaky tooth of Isaiah’s imagination would make a perfect craft to round out a fun half hour of dental-themed fun.

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

Nonficiton Review: Newton’s Law Going Through the Motions by Marlene Downing

On 15, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Newton’s Law: Going Through the Motions written by Marlene Downing, created by Bryheem Charity

From the publisher: All children are unique with different personalities and learning styles. Nadiyah is a student that struggles to understand the lesson in her classroom. Watching other students eagerly raise their hands makes her more frustrated and anxious. Nadiyah continues “going through the motions” until Maximus steps in to guide her on a fun, educational journey. The two of them discover that a hands-on approach is the antidote to Nadiyah’s style of learning. Going Through the Motions highlights the fact that different learning styles require a different approach. Nadiyah learns about Newton’s three laws of motion during her journey into the futuristic world. 

Think Magic School Bus, but for an older crowd. Nadiyah, a middle schooler, is confused in science class. They just learned Newton’s laws of motion and it feels like everyone gets it but her. A pep talk from her mother that evening seems to send Nadiyah off to an exciting dreamland where she meets Maximus, the school role model who is there to help her understand her science lessons.

Lucky for Nadiyah this dream middle school has an epic playground. It looks like an amusement park. Maximus tells her ” I know that learning something can be confusing. That’s why you need to make it as fun as you possibly can while you’re learning.” On the playground they use the soccer field, the swings, and a pond to demonstrate the principles.

I couldn’t agree more with Maximus. Not every topic is going to be riveting for every student, but learning should be fun, engaging and feel relevant to kids. By moving to a more hands on approach and in a setting outside the classroom the Laws of Motion feel a lot more engaged with every day life.

This was a great little primer on Newton’s Laws. I know they aren’t typically covered until middle school, but I would suggest that kids as young as second or third grade will easily grasp these concepts with Maximus helping them out. Which of course makes this an excellent little volume to have on your public or school library shelves. Any kids who are interested in science will enjoy reading Going Through the Motions and they will definitely enjoy being able to explain the Laws of Motion to their friends and families.

Unlike Magic School Bus, Going Through the Motions a lot less frenetic. I think this makes it more accessible as a read aloud, to younger audiences that might be distracted by ALL THE THINGS going on in MSB, and to older students who might feel that MSB is too young.

I particularly appreciate both that Nadiyah is an African American girl and that she doesn’t initially get it. I think science is one of those subjects where the narrative around kids who like it is that they understand it right away. Nadiyah realizes how enjoyable science and physics is once she’s given a little extra time with the lesson and a different approach to the concepts. This doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy science or that she isn’t smart enough. When you book talk this or hand sell it to a student, be sure you aren’t just giving it to the kids who are your science-y kids. Offer it to students who you think my enjoy science more if it was a little less academic and more active. And don’t discount using this book for older grades (fifth grade and up). It clearly explains Newton’s Laws of Motion in an easy to understand format with clear examples. There are kids in middle school too that need a little extra oomph.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers: Bullying by Lehman Riley

On 08, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

BullyingThe Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers: Bullying a choice with consequences written by Lehman Riley

From the publisher: What will the Little Wanderers do when they see their classmate Anna being bullied? Will cruel words keep her from achieving her dreams? When Papa Lemon suggests a trip back to 1953, the kids meet a judge named Rosa and get a first-hand look at how bullying has always been a problem. The kids also get an important reminder that their choices can either help or hurt the people around them. 

I came across this series a few years ago when looking to build and diversify my chapter book collection and I’m really glad I did. I think you would be surprised by how homogenous chapter books are. I find so many of them are exclusively about contemporary friendships with the occasional quirky character thrown in. They also tend to be pretty white (or feature animal characters). Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite kidlit features any and all of those characteristics, but my library collection wasn’t about me. Plus who wants to read the same type of book over and over again? I’ll tell you who doesn’t- kids.

When I found Papa Lemon, I found a diverse group of friends tackling issues that are relevant to kids, such as bullying in this most recent book, and drawing on history for lessons that can be applied to these issues now. Not only is there time travel (science fiction!), but there is history (historical fiction that isn’t Britain in the Elizabethan era!).

Another thing I especially appreciate about these books is how they aren’t so tediously formulaic (I’m looking at you Magic Treehouse). This might make them a little more difficult to follow for emerging readers, but it’s well worth it. Especially if you’re the parent or teacher or friend reading them aloud to someone.

It’s also incredibly refreshing to see an older character, Papa Lemon, guiding the kids but not being a frail, wizened old man. He’s up and going about his own business, but he points the friends in the right direction when they need a little guidance.

This book in particular feels well polished. Clearly Riley is hitting his stride in writing these stories. I’ve said this before for other books and I want to be clear this is not to imply that previous books were unpolished or bad. It’s just that this one feels like he’s refined his storytelling and gotten the formula down for the story.

In this book in particular I appreciate that the kids take their harassment to their phones and start texting each other about a mistake their classmate Anna makes in class.

These books are great for emerging chapter book readers. They feature an easy to follow plot line with a good lesson woven in. They can be a bit didactic, but I think it’s a really fine line to walk writing these types of books. You want them to be interesting and if you want a message in them you can’t bury that too deeply as the intended audience is still practicing the mechanics of reading (hence the formulaic book series at this level). The whole series is well worth having on your shelves for kids who want to branch out from simple friendship books.

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: Urban Toons presents Cinderella by Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim

On 01, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CinderellaUrban Toons presents Cinderella: A Princess of the Moors written by Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim

From Goodreads: Beautiful, smart, and kind, Safiya lived a charmed life in Italy until her beloved mother died. Her father remarried, bringing two selfish “sisters” into Safiya’s home. Now Safiya is Cinderella, pretty much a servant to her stepsisters. When the prince is looking for a wife, will Cinderella’s natural beauty shine through?

I know what you’re thinking. Really? Another retelling of Cinderella? How many different versions of Cinderella are out there? I know, I know. Tons. I see them on discount shelves at Barnes and Noble, on racks at Costco. None of them take the story further or add anything. And yet, there are several pieces of this version of Cinderella that I loved and that I think make it worth considering adding to your shelves if you collect Cinderella retellings, teach a fairy tale unit, or simply want a version of this classic story to read aloud.

The first is the vocabulary in it. So many of the rehashings of fairy tales simplify the language and I’m not sure why. In this version though, the text is rich with words that will build your child’s vocabulary and make the story so much more interesting to read. Words like “gilt”, “transcend”, and “sorrow”. Be sure to check in from time to time to briefly define some of these words. They make the reading experience so rich.

The second is that the princess is black and the story is set in Moorish Spain. The last library I worked in had a three-foot long section of shelf dedicated to Cinderella retellings that were used by the first grade in their Cinderella study. I don’t think there was a single one that featured a black Cinderella, African American or otherwise. There were a couple Asian (Chinese and Vietnamese, I believe) retellings and tons of Euro-centric versions plus several animal ones. In Cinderella: A Princess of the Moors readers get a little glimpse into an often ignored piece of European history (because we tend to teach European history as something that is exclusive to much whiter and lighter peoples).

Finally, I also love that this publisher, UrbanToons, is taking stories and populating them with black characters. There isn’t a token character of color stuffed into the story somewhere. Black characters fill all the roles and take center stage and that’s very powerful in the current publishing industry.

I personally have mixed feelings about fairy tales but I also recognize many, many people love them and read them. If you’re one of those teachers, parents or librarians be sure to diversify your story collections. Remember that Cinderella, and other fairy tales, aren’t specific to one culture or geographical region. The bones of the story can be broadly applied and we can demand diversity in these traditional stories too.

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: I Love My Mocha Skin by Crystal Garry

On 22, Feb 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I Love My Mocha SkinI Love My Mocha Skin written by Crystal Garry, pictures by Mocha Decor

From Goodreads: I Love My Mocha Skin is a short, poetic book that encourages African-American children to love themselves and embrace the skin they were born with.

At its heart this is such a simple book. Each page features a doe-eyed girl in a variety of outfits and hairstyles (although mostly the puffs seen on the cover), while the text celebrates something about her skin color. But there is nothing simple about taking joy in black skin.

I Love My Mocha Skin is such an effervescent celebration of girls of color. Crystal Garry and Mocha Decor have made an appealing character with large brown eyes, cute hair, and exciting outfits that are sure to grab your girly girls. She embraces all the varieties of color skin can come in and how it makes her feel empowered, beautiful, and alive.

Even if you only have one or two kids of color in your library or school or classroom population you need to be sure to have books like this one on your shelves. It’s vitally important that those kids see themselves reflected in your collection in positive, affirming ways. The book is not designed for white children, but don’t discount the importance of white children seeing positive, loving, beautiful representations of children of color. Constantly seeing an all-white cast of characters in books and media gives very powerful messages to all children about who is valuable and who is not.

Do you do a storytime that celebrates black boy joy and/or black girl magic? This would be perfect for younger audiences.

Another lovely book to encourage positive self image in kids of color.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: An Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott

On 11, Jan 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Angel for MariquaAn Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: Christmas is coming, but eight-year-old Mariqua Thatcher isn’t looking forward to the holidays. Mama’s gone and Gramma doesn’t know what to do with her feisty granddaughter. Almost every day Mariqua gets into a fight at school, and no one seems to understand how she feels inside. But things start to change when a mysterious street vendor gives Mariqua a beautifully carved angel as a gift. 

I know I’m a little late in reviewing this as it’s a Christmas book, but don’t pass over this review just yet. An Angel for Mariqua needs to be on your shelves. Mariqua’s mother has been incarcerated for a drug offense and now Mariqua is living with her grandmother attending a new school. Grandma is kind, but also elderly and not well equipped to raise a child. At school Mariqua is teased by one boy in particular, but sometimes by others, for having a “jailbird” mother. All this makes Mariqua feel small and angry and she lashes out at her one friend, her grandmother, and her classmates. She’s not a bad kid by any means, but she’s struggling. Then a chance encounter with a street vendor who gifts her a brown-skinned angel and meeting an older girl from her building helps Mariqua begin to come to terms with the big changes she’s faced in her life.

This is such a beautiful story about a girl making friends and learning to find value and the good in herself. She comes to find joy in small things and small kindnesses, while also coming to accept her situation and the friendship people offer her. When she is befriended by Valina, Mariqua also learns to see that others are also struggling. Valina is a beautiful example of a friend who isn’t perfect (she has her own family struggles that prevent her from keeping all her promises), but sets such a good example for Mariqua of how to be gracious and graceful. I absolutely adore the friendship the two girls form. Valina has been where Mariqua is, as far as being angry at the world for unfair but uncontrollable circumstances, and she can offer so much support to Mariqua as she works her way through her loneliness and anger.

The reading level would be good for strong third graders, many/most fourth graders, and fifth grade readers based on the length and complexity of the text. But I read it aloud to my seven year old (second grade age) and she enjoyed it very much. I would put it in a transitional chapter book section in the library.

I would caution libraries and collections to ensure that they have other representations of black children and children of color. While the book doesn’t pander to stereotypes, it does have an incarcerated mother with drug charges and an absent black father. These are very real issues for some children of color, but it cannot be the only narrative in book collections about families of color. Still, this is an incredibly positive representation of the situation and Elliott is such a wonderful, deft, and sensitive writer that you can’t go wrong with having it on your shelf. Make it a part of your holiday collections, displays, and read alouds.

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: Jewels from Our Ancestors by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 21, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jewels from our ancestorsJewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Jamilla Okubo

From Goodreads: Jewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs is a short, illustrated literary collection of words of wisdom from the continent of Africa. The book honors the elders who have come before us and gifted us with sensible sayings that compel both readers and listeners to reflect, learn and grow.

I remember stumbling across The Night Has Ears when I was cleaning up our folk and fairy tales picture book section of the library. I was surprised to discover it was by one of my favorite children’s book authors Ashley Bryan and was quite taken with it both because of his art and the complex simplicity of the proverbs themselves. It seemed like such a grown-up thing to be sharing with children and yet when I shared it with some of my students they clearly grasped these ideas so well.

Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has given us another stunning collection of proverbs for children here with Jewels from Our Ancestors. This is, on the surface, a simple collection of proverbs paired with stunning paintings that depict the saying. Where Bryan’s illustrations are on the psychedelic side, Okubo’s are understated, but no less beautiful. People are shown in silhouette with lovely patterned fabrics. Blue predominates giving it an ethereal quality, but so too do earth tones give the sayings a feeling of groundedness. You can see the brush strokes in the paintings which give large expanses like walls and backgrounds a texture that breaks them up in an inviting way.

The simple proverbs collected by Pizzoli again feel so sophisticated and yet accessible for young audiences. Many share profound advice that all readers would do well to heed while others are light yet meaningful. And while children may or may not be readily able to use the advice they might gather from this collection, they can certainly mull it over for years to come.

The concepts here give the book such a broad range of ways it can be incorporated into the classroom or the home and I see so many uses and applications for the book. For classrooms that study African cultures, you can share these. Of course this should be a piece in a broader study of African cultures and be wary of slipping into fetishizing or exoticising African wisdom and African cultures. Older students might want to research, if they can, the origins of the proverbs and how they relate to the cultures they originated in.

Jewels would also make a great addition to language arts studies of idioms, proverbs, and sayings. Many cultures have proverbs and sayings that impart wisdom in succinct and condensed nuggets. Compare them across cultures and examine their use of sparse, but impactful language. How is that these important pieces of knowledge can be distilled down into such short statements?

In my own home we have a set of cards with affirmations on them that relate to social ideas, emotional regulation, and building self esteem. We tend to read one at the breakfast or dinner table and discuss how it relates to our day or how we feel about it. I could see incorporating these proverbs into dinnertime discussion. Talk about what they mean, how they relate to your day or week, or how you might incorporate them into your daily life. Do any of them speak directly to you or what is going on in your life? I know a number of these did for me and it’s something I would like to share with my daughter. Grown-ups, remember to share your own ideas with children! This isn’t about grilling them about their New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a conversation about how we can all benefit and grow from these pieces of wisdom.

With such beautiful illustrations you could also use the book as a model for collage art. Cutting silhouetted people, using patterned papers to illustrate student’s stories and painted backgrounds and details make this a good model for mixed media art. Let kids experiment with various materials and see if they can illustrate their favorite proverb from the collection.

This would make an excellent addition to any school or home library that wants to diversify it’s collection. And with all the ways you can use it will be worth the purchase price. Please support small independent artists, authors, and presses. The English Schoolhouse in particular puts out gorgeous books at reasonable prices that will make your library collection well rounded and beautiful.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.

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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