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!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works with hilarious results!
In addition to working on getting visible/racial diversity into our library collection, I am also working on other forms of diversity including disability, family structure and, as is the case with this book, religious diversity. We used to have a lot of Jewish students in our school when I was a student there, but those numbers seem to have dropped somewhat. I don’t really know why, although I think it isn’t so much that there are fewer Jewish kids, just that we have more students snd from more diverse backgrounds so the percentage has dropped. Whatever the case, we are woefully low on books featuring Jewish families and children and, in comparison with Christian holidays, Jewish festivals and holidays. I would be happy if we never bought another Christmas book again.
As evidenced by the title The Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches is a story about a little Jewish town. Every full moon the town is plagued by twenty nine witches that fly around shrieking, frightening the animals, and terrorizing people’s dreams. No on in the town has ever been able to go out and look at the full moon because of the witches. One day, though, an old woman speaks to the rabbi. She wants to be able to see the full moon before she dies so the rabbi comes up with a plan to get rid of the witches. I won’t spoil the plot twist, because even I didn’t see it coming, but he very cleverly finds a way to rid the town of the witches forever. I was reminded of Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins in the trick the rabbi uses, so if you like that kind of cleverness this is well worth looking into.
I was really fortunate in that I found this for a dollar at our local Goodwill!! There were a number of other Jewish books that I was able to snag including Latkes, Latkes Good to Eat (one of my favorites to read at this time of year). Unfortunately it looks like this one is out of print, but if you can find it used for a few dollars it’s well worth adding to your collection. It would be a fun read around Halloween because of the witches or you could tie it in with a moon study because of the full moon. Because it’s out of print I won’t say it’s an absolute necessity, but if you can get it I recommend it. While it features a clearly Jewish town it does not focus on either a holiday or being overtly Jewish. It’s a nice backdrop to the story, like we so often see for Christian stories.
I think this particular books is best for that first-through-third grade range. There is some disagreement in our library on whether or not younger library patrons (i.e. Kindergarteners) can handle books with creepy characters like goblins and witches. The witches are described as scary and mean, but they don’t look particularly mean and they get their comeuppance in the end. My own five year old daughter (the perpetual tester, poor thing) enjoyed the story very much. Your mileage may vary with library patrons, students and children. The book also has a fair amount of text which requires some sitting still and listening. Again, mileage will vary. Finally, the illustrations are black, white, grey and light blue. They’re certainly engaging with lots to look at, but they aren’t bright and colorful. I think the palette enhances and emphasizes the moonlight that the villagers really want to see and enjoy, but it also makes looking at it a little less engaging for younger audiences. Again, mileage will vary and this is why I suggest first through third graders instead of younger audiences.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz’s story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.
So this book needs to be in everyone’s collection. There aren’t very many books about transgender kids or gender non-conforming kids, but those kids are out there and it’s important for them to be reflected in our collections.
The book itself is well written and clear. It isn’t particularly text-heavy, but does have more information in the back of the book including some pictures of Jazz both before and after. I think the text could be helpful both for children who are confused by the feelings they may have and for parents who are also confused and scared. The illustrations are lovely and soft and inviting and really add to the quality of the book.
To be sure the this is an issue book. It follows Jazz Jennings as a young child through her struggle to understand why she wasn’t born female and her family’s struggle to understand as well. It’s all incredibly upbeat, which I think is appropriate for the intended audience. I would love to see books where transgender kids are just par for the course, but these books will strengthen our collections. Both types of books will play a role in making our collections windows and mirrors for all out students, children, and families.
As a side note, I’m seeing nearly all these picture books that focus on what could be transgender kids center around boys who are transgender or feminine. Like Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress or One of a Kind Like Me. Most of these books feature boys who like to wear girls clothing, an interest that is not necessarily gay or transgender, but more to the point where are the girls who are transgender? I wonder if this is in part that girls being more boy-like (i.e. tomboy) is more acceptable and we just haven’t seen as much of a need to write about them yet? (Which isn’t to say those books aren’t needed. They are.) Or if that’s just a harder thing to show in picture books? I would like to see some more books that feature girls, though.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Just savor these bouquets of babies—cocoa-brown, cinnamon, peaches and cream. As they grow, their clever skin does too, enjoying hugs and tickles, protecting them inside and out, and making them one of a kind. Fran Manushkin’s rollicking text and Lauren Tobia’s delicious illustrations paint a breezy and irresistible picture of the human family—and how wonderful it is to be just who you are.
This would be the perfect book to pair with Shades of People and it’s geared toward that age of audience (pre-school and below). It’s also a great starting off point for talking about how we all look different. While there isn’t exactly a plot to the story, the illustrations seem to tie the text to something like one. The loose plot of the illustrations follows a biracial family around their city as they encounter other people. The families shown in the book are a mix of colors, religions, parents, and abilities (as you can probably tell from the cover).
This is definitely the type of book we want on our shelves as it obviously celebrates the diversity we see in people and families. It reminds me a lot of concept book in both it’s plot and subject matter. For that reason I think it would make an excellent addition to storytimes.
The joyful and fun illustrations and gentle text will certainly hold an audience, but it might not make this a book kids are clamoring to check out. My own daughter really enjoyed reading it, but never picked it up on her own to have me read it again. Bear that in mind when thinking about purchasing the book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Freckleface and her best friend, Windy Pants Patrick, each have something secret in their backpacks: sticky, gooey gum and a squished, messy donut. When it comes time to pull their homework from their backpacks to hand in to the teacher, suddenly their snack choices seem like a really bad idea.
From Goodreads: Everyone’s favorite red-haired seven-year-old has a loose tooth! And if it comes out at school, she gets a special prize from the nurse. But what if it doesn’t budge before the bell rings? Kids who are at the stage of wiggly teeth will laugh along as they read this light and funny story about Freckleface’s pursuit of the ultimate loose-tooth prize.
So this is a cute little series. It’s a good addition to the actually-easy, easy readers (although it still requires some reading skill and knowledge of sight words). I read the above two titles and one other in the series, but know that neither is the first in the series. I have not read the first book so I cannot speak to how hard/easy it is in terms of reading ability. My hold at the library was cancelled, but it looks like it might be a bit harder than these. It is not part of any of the easy reader series and the trim size makes it look more like a beginning chapter book than easy reader. While all the books appear to be numbered on Goodreads, they did not need to be read in order. They made perfect sense being read out of order and with gaps (I read 4, 5, and 6 but not in order).
The reason I picked these up to see about purchasing them is that Freckleface’s best bud, Windy Pants Patrick, has two moms and it isn’t a big deal. Unfortunately, they do not make appearances in Loose Tooth! or Lunch or What’s That? (the other I read) only Backpacks! Now, they could appear in others and I’m hoping they do, but what I loved best is they were shown right alongside Freckleface’s hetero family and it isn’t even really something of note. It’s just a stated fact, naturally part of the text, and the reader moves on. Perfect. This is exactly the kind of representation that I am looking for and am struggling to find. These aren’t gay-family issue books, they’re messy-kid and loose-tooth issue books.
All in all, the books are cute and funny. I wish we saw Windy Pants’ moms in more books (and they may appear in others, I’ll be checking before buying). The author and characters are white and I don’t especially need more of those books, but the illustrator is a woman of color (Vietnamese-American) and if Windy Pants’ moms make an appearance those particular titles are worth it to me.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: After Lester is adopted by Daddy Albert and Daddy Rich, he develops a big problem—he can’t fall asleep. Night after night he creeps into his parents’ room and attempts to crawl in between his two daddies, confident that if he’s with them and their dog, Wincka, nothing bad will happen to him ever again. But every night, Lester’s new dads walk him back to his own room, hoping that eventually Lester will get used to the new house and his new family and feel as though he belongs. They buy him a bike and take him for ice cream. They make cocoa and introduce him to his cousins. But no matter how happy Lester seems during the day, he still gets scared and worried at night! It’s the sweet dog Wincka who finally solves the problem when she climbs into Lester’s bed and promptly falls asleep, serving as both his pillow and his protector. Lester feels home at last.
While from the cover you might think this is a story about a family with two dads, it’s actually a story about adoption. Lester has been living in a children’s home for over a year when he is finally adopted by a family. It just so happens that this family is made up of two dads.
And while the story is about Lester’s struggles with adapting to a new home and a new life while still dealing with the trauma of his earlier life, it’s also just a story about a kid who is afraid of the dark and ends up in his parents’ room every night. As nice as it is for kids to see new situations reflected in their books, this book presents a familiar situation for families with small kids.
I will say the story wanders a bit and could have focused a little more sharply. There is a point where I always think the book is over and then there are a couple more pages. It also has an odd timeline that when reading feels like it stretches over months, but appears to only cover a few weeks at most. To me it felt like it could have used a bit more editing. The text is long, however my own five year old is totally engaged with the story and has asked to read it over and over.
The amazing thing is that this is NOT a book about a family with two dads. It’s a story about adoption and the issues the family faces as parents with an adopted child. Lester is adopted by two dads, but that is just par for the course. There is zero commentary about that and that is such a beautiful thing. In fact there are even a couple illustrated spreads that show the two dads in bed together. I’m sure more prudish and conservative readers will find this scandalous. And in one of those spreads Lester talks about wanting to snuggle up between his two dads to feel safe. I know that will really send some (parent) readers over the edge. But it’s no different than other books I have read showing children snuggled between their heterosexual parents.
I think this is an important book to have on library shelves. It’s there for kids with two dads and adopted children to reflect their lives and it’s there for kids who live with biological, heterosexual parents who will see their peers reflected and come away with a new sense of empathy. It’s there for all kids who have struggled with nighttime fears and loneliness. All in all the sweet story and importance of showing a family with two dads where it isn’t a big deal far outweighs any complaints about it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Buzz Beaker keeps oversleeping. He misses the school bus. He wears his pajamas to school. He knows he can’t be late again, so he finds a way to win the race to school!
From Goodreads: Buzz is excited when a toy store owner hires him to sell science kits at her store. After trying a few different sales tactics, Buzz finds a hit with a science show with goo, but then he faces a new problem. The goo won’t stop growing! What will he do with all that goo?
These were the perfect little easy readers. They feature Buzz Beaker, a kid of color and a scientist. The books are also humorous In The Race to School, Buzz ends up at school in his PJs. In The Growing Goo, Buzz entices customers to buy science kits at the toy store by showing off some goo that ends up getting out of hand. A funny punch line at the end will make readers think and laugh as they get the joke. I cannot stress how much we need humorous books on our library shelves. They are what kids want and yet it seems they aren’t what is there. Many of our easy readers seem so serious! Not depressing or sad, but serious. And the ones that are funny seem to have a pretty sophisticated sense of humor (Owl At Home I’m looking at you).
The focus isn’t really on the actual science Buzz is doing. He’s presented as enjoying science, so much so that he is constantly late for school and wants to help sell the science kits at the toy store, but he never talks about his experiments or gets into jargon. I think this keeps these easy readers from getting bogged down in difficult vocabulary and concepts, so to my mind it isn’t a problem. Your diehard nonfiction fans might not buy into it or might give one or two a try. On the other hand, they might really relate to Buzz and his mishaps and inventions and get into them. Either way they should end up on your shelves if they can.
I know Ada Twist is a girl scientist, but for the kids who like her I would recommend these books to read by themselves. As I’ve said my library desperately needs to add more diversity to the easy reader collection. I also feel like libraries can’t have too many easy readers. They’re short reads even if kids are just learning so they need lots of books in that easy reader range to practice with. These are on the lower end, but feel more sophisticated, which seems to be a rare combination. Buzz Beaker is a fantastic option to add to your collection.