By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Feb 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Fatou and the Kora is a modern West African fairy tale set in Dakar, Senegal. Fatou, a young Senegalese girl, resides in a region where it is thought by many that the kora, or the African harp, is an instrument that is not to be played by girls. Fatou follows her instinct and discovers a generational gift within herself, while also teaching her father an unexpected lesson.
The book is lushly illustrated and heavy with symbolism. After reading through it the first time I came away feeling it really and truly was a modern fairy tale. It had the same qualities of being both a good story and a story with a lesson and, combined with the illustrations, an invitation to revisit it after chewing on it for awhile.
Fatou is a quiet, thoughtful little girl. The rich illustrations that introduce the story show the reader her world and how she sees it. It’s peopled with family and full of vibrant animals and scenery. Fatou spends much of her time observing all that is around her and while observing she discovers the beauty of the kora.
It calls to her and reminds her of her mother when she was pregnant and of Yemaya, a Yoruba goddess. Unfortunately the kora is reserved for men, as emphasized the by the picture of Fatou’s father playing it with his father, then grandfather, and great-grandfather nested inside the body of the kora, each playing the instrument that has been passed down the generations. But when Fatou reflects on it, the kora is drawn as Fatou sees it and you can’t help but agree with her interpretation. Fatou begins to sneak her father’s kora out into the forest to practice everyday after lunch. Her father is dozing and won’t notice she or the kora are gone. Her mother does, however, notice and keeps Fatou’s secret. As in all fairy tales the deception is found out, but with the help of the natural world Fatou has been watching all her life, her father comes to see that Fatou not only has talent, but also belongs to the music and the instrument.
For what it’s worth the book reminds me of Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle in that it’s about a girl who takes up an instrument that is traditionally played by men. The two stories are actually very different, but you could certainly pair them up to discuss breaking out of gender expectations and limitations. For American audiences this would also make an excellent jumping off point for looking at Senegalese (and Yoruba) culture as well as West African history and gender roles and expectations in different cultures. It also shows what appears to be an average family, meaning it gets away from that narrative that everyone in Africa is destitute and pitiful.
One final thought, I love how the book begins “In the West African city of Dakar, not so long ago- in a land once compose of kingdoms and empires that is now known as modern Senegal…”. It’s such a perfect and subtle nod to the fact that “Senegal” is a European and colonial construct and not what once was. It’s also so enticing to hear about kingdoms and empires. It will make readers want to discover more about that. Highly recommend this title. Particularly important if your school or class does a generic Africa unit.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Tomorrow is the school parade, and Danny knows exactly what he will be: a princess. Mommy supports him 100%, and they race to the thrift store to find his costume. It’s almost closing time; will Danny find the costume of his dreams in time?
This is another one of Liu-Trujillo’s books that I had intended to put in the library collection, but was not allowed to leave our house by my daughter. We probably read this once a week. Her favorite, the spread of Nifty Thrifty, the thrift shop Danny and his mom visit to find his costume. There are racks and racks of clothes and she loves to see if she can spot any purple before Danny and his mom start their search aisle by aisle.
This is a must purchase for any family or library looking to add books about gender non conforming kids. While I’m all for books like I Am Jazz that focus on being either gender non-conforming or transgender (those must be in your collection too!), I think the beauty of this particular story is that Danny just wants a purple princess costume. There isn’t much beyond that and that’s fine. We’ve had boys come through our lower school who haven’t struggled with gender identity per se, but love to wear dresses and fancy shoes. This book is for them. Danny is confronted by his friends at the end, but he has the perfect response. Mom and Grandpa are both super supportive and don’t bat an eye when Danny presents the picture of his costume.
The story is also a great one about using your imagination and making something when you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for. Danny is convinced that his purple princess dress is at Nifty Thrifty, but they can’t find it. Just before the story closes Danny realizes all the pieces of it are there. He and his mom just have to put them together. After some cutting and sewing Danny has the costume he pictured and it’s perfect.
The pastel color palette is perfect for the gentle story and the pictures alternate between lots of white space and racks of clothing filling the page. As always the people are lovely and have great expressions and body language.
I don’t think this should be the only book you have in your collection about gender non conforming kids. It must also include books like I Am Jazz, Jacob’s New Dress, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. (I am having a MUCH harder time finding books for gender non conforming girls.) But it should absolutely be there. It’s for those kids who aren’t quite sure yet about themselves and need to see their reflections. It’s also for those kids who are out there and want to be different. They’ll see themselves too. And it’s for their classmates, so they can see their diverse world, the one they see everyday, reflected. And if you think you don’t have one of those kids in your school, buy it anyways. You might not know that you do, you might eventually, and your students will eventually encounter someone like Danny. They deserve to see a wider world too.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Step into the world of Ida B. Wells as she uses her life experiences and obstacles as motivation to achieve many firsts in editing and journalism in the United States of America and abroad. Read along as she flourishes in the wake of family tragedy and ever changing life situations. “Power in My Pen” encourages penmanship, free thought, and historical lessons from a highly influential leader in the early 1900’s. The strong intelligent woman we know as Ida B. Wells proved, no matter who you are, you can share your message and your truth to the world through the power of the pen.
I have to admit I expected there to a Message with a capital “m” in the book. There is, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Wells’ life was far more the focus and as a parent reading the book with my child I was able to draw the message out through her life and work. She sums it up at the end succinctly, but we were able look back over her life and see her living it.
The book quickly passed the high interest test. The first night it was on our shelf my daughter asked to read it and she has dug it out of our considerable bedtime book stack several times since.
The book is clearly geared toward young audiences. The text is simple, but still includes some good vocabulary and syntax. It does simplify her life, but in a way that makes it much more accessible to younger kids. They get a sense of who Ida B. Wells was and what she accomplished without being bogged down in dates (in my experience these are totally meaningless to kids under 5 or 6) or timelines or tons of details. We’ve tried some biographies at home and not many have been chosen for a second read through (exceptions being this one, Jane Goodall, Misty Copeland and Trombone Shorty).
Personally, the name Ida B. Wells rang a bell, but I couldn’t have told you who exactly she was. The book clued me in and made me curious, though, and I started looking her up for my own edification. We did look up her Wikipedia article right after reading it the first time to get a little more information about her. I could see using the book in the classroom or library with a biography project. It’s perfect for getting a good overview and piquing interest.
The illustrations are charming with a happy smiling Ida B. Wells (her actual photographs make her look incredibly dour, like most photos from that era). I thought it was an interesting choice to show Ida and the other characters in more modern clothing and settings. At first I wasn’t sure about it, but I realized my daughter was connecting better with the characters on the page. I think this is one more piece that helps the book appeal and click with the younger target audience.
My one complaint is that the book is a thin paperback. It’s going to get lost on the shelf! To solve this I will be sure it will sit face out as long as possible, but hardcovers still tend to fair better. The books are not terribly expensive and the company has been running a deal with a buy-one-get-one for a the past month or so. There are a number of series of biographies that are geared toward young audiences (Ordinary People Change the World, for example) that are also very popular. If you have an extra $10 in your budget this is well worth adding. Plus it adds an important African American woman to our collections who doesn’t usually see elementary school library shelves (or high school for that matter).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Tallulah the Tooth Fairy is not only the founder and CEO of the largest teeth collecting organization on the planet, Teeth Titans, Incorporated, she’s a clever and wildly successful business woman with an affinity for all things dental. A natural innovator and problem solver, Tallulah finds herself unexpectedly stumped when six year-old Ballard Burchell leaves a note instead of his tooth under his pillow. What’s a Tooth Fairy to do when there’s no tooth to take?
This book is amazing! It’s got great illustrations, excellent text, tons of humor that will appeal to both kids and the adults reading it to them, wonderful vocabulary and lots of details relating to teeth that are fun to spot, not to mention a good story.
I had originally bought the book for my daughter. She’s kind of into the idea of mythical people and creatures like Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy despite the fact that we don’t actually celebrate them. Go figure. (Thanks, consumerism that markets those ideas so strongly to children.) I wanted to get it because look at her! Tallulah is amazing and a CEO!
I absolutely love that the story challenges the usual idea and imagery of the tooth fairy that shows her as white, blonde, and medieval. In fact, the story takes that head on. In the note written by Ballard, he has drawn the tooth fairy in that way despite being black himself. Tallulah reads the note and the first comment she makes is “that looks nothing like me”. She does comment in the next sentence that she isn’t that small, but between those lines is the unspoken fact that she is also clearly not white.
The text is longer, so unless you think your child or younger audience is motivated to listen, or is good at listening, I would recommend it for 1st through 3rd grade (my third grade class last year had a superb sense of humor and would have LOVED this book). The vocabulary is pretty sophisticated too. The vast majority of it makes perfect sense in context and shouldn’t cause a problem. It very much brought to mind William Steig, particularly Dr. DeSoto and Shrek and how he uses language.
The language also ties into the humor of the story. There are plenty of funny asides for parents and kids and the twist at the end is both a great message and satisfying. Do not miss the boardroom scene wherein Tallulah asks for advice about what to do with Ballard’s note. Her board is made up of all black women, except for one white dude, who is complaining about the lack of diversity and wearing an All Fairies Matter shirt. Hilarious nod to current events and again a subtle nod to defaulting the Tooth Fairy to white.
The illustrations appealed to me because of their clean modernity which made Tallulah seem all the more cool. The colors are bright without being garish or saccharine. The art appealed to my daughter because each picture has lots of tiny tooth details and invite long looks (I highly recommend flipping through the pictures before reading it through the first time because they are so captivating).
If you are looking for general books to add to your collection this is well worth it. Move it to the top of your list or gift it the next time a tooth falls out.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: What do daddies do with their children? They style hair, they carpool, they cuddle (after they look under beds for monsters). They play, they motivate, and they comfort. Dads may sometimes wonder if they’re doing a good job. But one thing they’re sure of is that they love every moment with their children.
Generally, I liked this book. The pictures show a diverse set of families with a range of ages of children. Plus, it’s all dads doing things with their children, including things that are traditionally seen as female, like cooking and brushing hair.
The bright colors and bright pictures make this a really visually appealing book. I actually wish it was a board book edition, because it’s perfect for babies and toddlers to look at. They love to look at pictures of real people and especially at faces and this has plenty of those. It also challenges gender norms which you can’t do early enough with children.
My only issue with the book, and the reason I don’t think this is an absolute must in library collections, is that the text is rather sentimental. It strikes me as something that appeals more to parents than to kids. I didn’t mind the text, but my daughter was more interested in talking about the pictures than listening to me read the actual text. I could see reading this in a storytime and using it as a jumping off point for talking about what the dads are doing in the pictures and relating it back to the kids own dads and lives.
I would say it would make a great classroom purchase for preschools and daycares. I think it’s an as-funds-allow purchase for libraries that serve those populations as well as older kids. If your child at home is really into photographic books and bright colors then they will enjoy this one. And if they come out with a board book version I definitely think it’s a must for parents, classrooms and libraries with babies and toddlers.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Milo is excited about her class trip to the museum. The docent leads them on a tour and afterward Milo has time to look around on her own. But something doesn’t feel right, and Milo gradually realizes that the people from her community are missing from the museum. When her aunt urges her to find a solution, Milo takes matters into her own hands and opens her own museum!
It’s just a Zetta Elliott kind of week around here. Whatever she publishes, I buy it as soon as it’s available (or as soon as I find out about it) and you should too. Milo’s Museum is a book I wish I had had as a kid, because after seeing Milo create her own museum, I would have done the exact same thing. Milo does it for reasons that would not have been my own, but just the idea of curating your own collection was (and still kind of is!) incredibly enticing.
This book was interesting in light of reading the Tonya Bolden book about the building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Milo doesn’t see herself in the local museum she visits on a field trip so she decides to create her own. That brought to mind part of the impetus behind the NMAA. As Milo walks around the museum she becomes increasingly uncomfortable. She isn’t quite sure why, but eventually realizes that she isn’t seeing herself or her community reflected in any of the art or artists.
I would highly recommend this for school libraries and classrooms. Be sure to read it before and/or after visiting a museum on a class field trip. I think it will certainly inspire kids of all ages to curate and create their own museums that reflect them and their communities. And I would encourage you to help your students do just that. Milo takes different people through her museum so you can see what she has chosen. She also gives explanations for why she has chosen objects. This provides a good model for helping students choose what they want in their own museum. I also think with older students you could open up a discussion about who decides what will go into a museum and how that unfairly tends to keeps certain artists and people out of them.
An all around inspiring and important book. As with Melena’s Jubilee, if you have the money this is a must to have on your shelves.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: At breakfast she learns she has been given a “fresh start,” and she decides to celebrate by doing things differently for the rest of the day. Melena chooses not to fight with her brother, and shares the money she has rather than demanding to be repaid by a less fortunate friend. This story introduces children to the concept of jubilee, which stresses the important principles of debt relief, generosity, and forgiveness.
I will buy nearly any book that Zetta Elliott writes and publishes, my exception being YA because I work in an elementary library (but to be honest I buy those for myself to read). Everything she writes is excellent and the books are popular with our students. I chose this book in particular to be my first review of the year because of the turning-over-a-new-leaf theme that seemed so appropriate for a new year.
Melena’s Jubilee follows Melena through a day where she decides to have a fresh start. She wakes up feeling new and refreshed. The day before she had been in trouble, but today she wants to make things right and make good choices. She inadvertently and indirectly broke a vase of her mother’s and her mother offers to help her glue it back together. She decides to let her brother be instead of whacking him with a pillow. She forgives money owed to her by a friend and she shares her ice cream with her neighborhood friends.
As far as a book to read in the classroom, both the idea of forgiveness and making better choices are concepts we focus on and I think the story will really resonate with some discussion. The idea of starting over also really appeals to me as an educator for helping children move on from bad days. They happen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean they have to hang over us. As a parent I also like these ideas and have talked about them with my daughter when she or I have had a rough day. I originally ordered the book for my library, but after reading it to my daughter she asked for her own copy. Something about the illustrations and the story really clicked for her. This was the first book in a couple months that she has requested I buy.
I hate to say this, but Boyd’s illustrations are bright and rainbow-hued which is like catnip to children. Shallow, but true. The illustrations are beautiful, though and the brightness celebrates the message of the book. The various types of prints and papers used really makes them interesting to pore over. While Elliott’s story is beautiful by itself and has a message without hitting you over the head with it, I think the two together make this a great book. I’m pretty sure the rainbow at the end sealed the deal for my daughter.
If you have money in your budget, be sure to purchase this one. It will find many appreciative readers, from parents to teachers to students.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Nate loves aliens and he really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes and he wants to fit in. What will he do? With the help of his two dads he makes a surprising decision.
I know Purim isn’t for a few more months, but I’ve been previewing books for my springtime storytimes. The Purim Superhero actually gets two points in it’s favor for two kinds of diversity. Which means it will definitely end up on my library shelf and should end up on yours. Nate’s family is both Jewish and has two dads. Woohoo!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Purim it’s a Jewish holiday celebrating Queen Esther and how she saved her people. Jewish children often dress up much like American Halloween. There’s a nice little note in the end of the book that will help explain it to non-Jewish kids, but it’s pretty evident from the story both what the holiday celebrates and what is done to celebrate.
I particularly love that the story is really about Nate struggling with wanting to go along with his friends, but to stay true to his interests, ideas, and desires. For that reason I’m going to be reading it in my superhero themed storytime. The book is about superheros and how kids love them, but it has a lot more depth to it and doesn’t feature a lot of the punch-‘em-up slapstick in the more traditional superhero books. I’m not opposed to that, but it isn’t what I want to read at storytime.
The two dads part of the book is also incredibly important. It’s mentioned and held up briefly as an example of how people can be different, but it isn’t an Issue with a capital I. It just is. When Nate struggles with wanting to be an alien and not superhero for Purim he asks his dads if sometimes they just want to be like everyone else and they respond by using the story of Purim to explain basically, “no, not really, embrace your differences”. Then the book moves on and, while you see the family together, no one mentions it again, no one apologizes or waxes poetic about loving how different they are.
As I said last week, I’m really looking to beef up our Jewish stories in the library both because having a religious diversity in our collection is important, but also because of a fair number of Jewish families in our population. I was particularly glad to find this gem of a book because it celebrates a lesser known (to Christians), but important holiday. I highly recommend this one for school libraries and for classroom libraries if you have other holiday books you bring out. The superhero theme will appeal to all those superhero-obsessed kids, Jewish or not. The message will appeal to educators and parents.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this powerful story of the building of the White House, Coretta Scott King Award winners Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper capture the emotion and toil that created this incredible structure, the home of our president. The White House was created by many hands, several of the slaves’, who will be remembered throughout history for their extraordinary feat. Many slaves were able to purchase their freedom after earning money from learning a trade through this work, which speaks to their unbelievable strength.
I don’t really remember where I came across this book, but I do remember I came across it shortly after all that ridiculous flack Michelle Obama got for mentioning in a speech that the White House was, in part, built by enslaved people. It seemed logical to me even though our educational system managed to miss teaching that fact. I guess it wasn’t logical for others?
Well, here’s a book to make sure your school does actually teach about who really built the White House and who profited from that work. While I think this book does a great job celebrating the hard work people, especially enslaved men and women, put into building the iconic building and how they were eventually able to use it to their advantage, I think it also does a really good job emphasizing that, by and large, the money and rewards went to the white owners of these enslaved people. There is a refrain “Slave hands saw/ twelve hours a day,/ but slave owners take/slave hands’ pay.” that repeats several times after longer passages that show the hard work everyone was putting into the building.
This is definitely a book that should be on school library shelves (public libraries too!). It counters the whitewashed and sanitized history we teach in schools. It shows pride in the work the enslaved and free blacks did. It’s history as it really was. Our second grade does a unit on African Americans, the Underground Railroad, and a little bit on slavery. It bugs me that, while the school claims to be progressive, we still only focus on African folktales (mostly written by white people in the 60s), slavery and the Civil Rights movement when studying anyone black (although with some new teachers this narrative is changing). I am aware that this is still a book that takes place during a time when Africans were enslaved in the US, but it’s a much less well known piece of that history. It does mention that there were free blacks and white immigrants who worked on the project as well. Again, something that isn’t well taught or known. This is the kind of book I want in my collection that counters the narrative of blacks only having two places in history (slavery and Civil Rights Movement).
While the text is important and interesting, the illustrations are also beautiful. Floyd Cooper always does amazing work. Here the illustrations have a hazy, tan wash over them that makes the work seem hot, dusty, and difficult. I love that Cooper gives each person a face to go with the names listed off in the text. It humanizes the people who worked on the White House.
The text is not long, nor is it graphic about slavery or anything that might be deemed too much for young children. I would say you could read this book down into first grade and up into the higher grades. There is a short author’s note at the end that adds a little more historical context that is fascinating and will stretch the picture book into the upper elementary grades. If your school has a library this should be in it. If any of your classes study the nascent nation, this needs to be in your collection. Make sure our kids are learning all our history.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Billie’s best friend thinks their neighbor, Ms. Marble, is crazy. Supposedly Ms. Marble has a hundred cats in her apartment and sings to them all day long. But when Billie spends an afternoon with her elderly neighbor, she discovers that Ms. Marble is actually a lot of fun! Ms. Marble introduces Billie to Lady Day, Ma Rainey, and other great blues singers. Together they dress up in antique clothes, and sing and dance to the blues. Then Ms. Marble shares an old secret she has been keeping in her heart. Billie learns that “some hurts stay inside you a mighty long time,” but the optimism of the blues triumphs in the end; Ms. Marble assures her young friend that “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”
Another excellent title from Zetta Elliott. Billie has the blues. It’s raining, her best friend is sick, her babysitter is running late and now she has to go with her mom to the community college for a few hours. Just as the elevator arrives on their floor, Ms. Marble, their elderly neighbor, pokes her head out to say hello. Billie grabs the opportunity and invites herself over to Ms. Marble’s apartment for the afternoon. Ms. Marble is delighted and the two spend an amazing afternoon listening to jazz, dressing up, and eating cookies.
The story was actually really cozy, despite the secret Ms. Marble shares (more on that in a minute). I think the story is a wonderful celebration of a cross-generational friendship developing. And I think readers will be able to discover all the great music and singers that Billie is introduced to that afternoon. I found Billie to be funny. She narrates inside her head and admits the times she is doing things her mother will find rude, like asking too many questions, using “ain’t”, and inviting herself over. But she also rather impishly says her mom isn’t there so she doesn’t care. That seemed like such a kid thing to do and made me chuckle. I think it also makes her really relatable to kids. They’ll have the same questions Billie does and be relieved she just up and asks.
I’m going to spoil the secret that Ms. Marble shares with Billie: her sweetheart was lynched in the South. The text does not specifically mention lynching, just that he was “taken”, but the illustration on the page shows a young Ms. Marble crying with a noose and gallows off in the distance. It’s certainly subtle and for some kids it won’t really register. Others may know exactly what happened. I suppose people’s tolerance for lynching in a book aimed at third through fifth graders will vary. Professionally, I don’t see any reason not to have the book on your shelf where families, children and teachers can make those decisions for themselves. Personally, I think children are very good at grasping difficult history, feeling compassion and tapping into their strong sense of social justice. (For those of you who think children don’t have a sense of social justice, go out to a playground at recess and pay attention.) Parents, teachers and librarians may need to be ready to answer questions that arise, but to me that’s the most important aspect of books like these. It opens up hard conversations, teaches history that isn’t usually discussed and validates children’s ability to really see the world as it is. There is a little bit of age appropriate information included in the back. It might seem radical to some conservative library populations (even my school would have parents that would object), but I guarantee you children will be able to handle it (yes, I’ve talked about this and worse with my five year old).
The book ends on a happy note and a hint at Billie and Ms. Marble’s friendship continuing. If you don’t have Elliott’s books on your shelves yet, what are you waiting for? They are exactly the kind of stuff we need to give to our kids. Run, don’t walk, to her website and/or Amazon and buy all of them now!