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 14, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene’s parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law?
This was the book I read to my daughter the day after the election. I decided it was important for her to start learning the history of how Native Nations have been treated over the years. It isn’t necessarily a new conversation with her, but I think this was one of the most real. Her newest thing is to ask, is this a true story? And this one is.
I can’t say the book is a beautiful story, but it is a beautiful book. It tackles a dark and difficult topic. Irene and two of her brothers are sent off by the local official to the residential school. They last one year and upon returning home for the summer spill the atrocities that they have encountered. Their father comes up with a plan, stands up to the government official, and manages to prevent them from having to go back. Many were not so lucky. A personal and informative author’s note at the end adds a little more detail to the story.
The illustrations fit this beautifully. The sombre color palette and the simple, clean settings perfectly reflect both the mood and place of the book. The nuns are creepily white as I’m sure they probably seemed in their dour habits.
This is a long picture book. Many pages are full of text with a picture on the facing page. I do think it’s intended for a slightly older audience and I think you could use it as a read aloud well up into middle school. But I will say my five year old sat through it with no complaints. The story was captivatingly told.
I can’t stress the importance of having these books in your library collection enough. They reflect accurately the experiences of many Native families and the history of many Native peoples (not just the ones in Canada). They can start conversations, albeit hard ones for us white teachers and parents, around the deep seated racism in our country and how that has played out over the years. They can also ensure that children are being exposed to this history. It is unlikely that most schools are teaching about this in any classroom, even in high schools. If you work in a middle or high school library I recommend putting this on your shelf, but if you can’t or won’t put a picture book out, get Fatty Legs and promote that.
I had a private school education and as an adult I find myself asking what the hell my parents paid for. I learned nothing. Nothing. Ignoring the difficult parts of history and literature, I still learned nothing. Make sure that doesn’t happen to your students.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: This unique addition to the CitizenKid collection, written by by Danielle S. McLaughlin, provides an accessible exploration of the rights and freedoms of citizens in a democracy through a series of six short stories starring Mayor Moe and the councillors of a sometimes wacky city. In each story, the councillors are first presented with a problem, and the group then makes a decision to address the problem with a new law, only to discover later there were unintended consequences. There is one councillor, Bug, who objects to each decision being proposed by commenting, “That’s not fair!” — a sentiment familiar to children, who have an innate sense of justice.
I loved this book. I thought it did a fantastic job of explaining rights and freedoms in a way that would both make sense to kids and would appeal to their innate sense of justice.
The book would work best as a parent-child or teacher-class read aloud. Certainly a fourth or fifth grader could pick this up on their own and read it and I would put it in any library for that reason. But the conversations that can and should come up around the rights and freedoms are what will really make this book.
It could easily lead into how our democracy works. It looks at the issues from a lot of perspectives and taps into SEL ideas we work with in our school. It think it would also be an excellent jumping off point to talk about how not all people enjoy these freedoms we like to think of as being fundamental and essential.
I do wish Mayor Moe wasn’t such a bungling idiot because things in life are not quite so cut and dry and I think children are very capable of grasping gray-area conversations. Mayor Moe is pretty much always the culpable party for taking away freedoms. Injustice comes from a lot of places and not just one person which is how the book makes it seem. On the flip side, I know kids will grasp that Mayor Moe is a stand in for those people and ideas.
Considering our current political climate and the circus that is our presidential election this would be an excellent book to have out. I will be working through it with my daughter soon and if I had third grade in the library this year this would have been the first half of our year.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: The first national museum whose mission is to illuminate for all people, the rich, diverse, complicated, and important experiences and contributions of African Americans in America is opening.
And the history of NMAAHC–the last museum to be built on the National Mall–is the history of America.
The campaign to set up a museum honoring black citizens is nearly 100 years old; building the museum itself and assembling its incredibly far-reaching collections is a modern story that involves all kinds of people, from educators and activists, to politicians, architects, curators, construction workers, and ordinary Americans who donated cherished belongings to be included in NMAAHC’s thematically-organized exhibits.
This was really fascinating, but being a museum and history nerd it isn’t surprising that I was hooked. But would a kid be?
The book is not overly long and it focuses on the entire history of the museum, from the inception of the idea way back in the early 20th century, through appointing a head, to construction of the building, to building the collections. The process for how they acquired artifacts was clever and well done. There were the typical auction acquisitions, but they ran an Antiques Roadshow style event in several cities across the US. There they had people bring three items from their family heirlooms and they would give them some historical context. Any they were interested in they asked to keep and restore (and I believe purchase). Each chapter takes on a different piece of building the museum. Some of the more technical aspects, like signing it into law and finding a director may be less interesting to kids, but it isn’t overly detailed and lengthy.
The final two-page spreads focus on a variety of the exhibitions in the museum. There are pictures of artifacts with captions and some text that gives the context behind the exhibit. There is a music collection and an athletics collection that may really pique reluctant reader interest.
I was pleased to see a shout out to Sacramento. A white couple had bought a plane to restore and it turned out to be a plane that had been used to train Tuskegee Airmen. A number of them had even signed the cockpit. The couple did restore the plane and ultimately donated it to the museum. They also flew it across the country to deliver it!
This is the kind of nonfiction I want to be curating in my older/harder nonfiction collection. It’s engaging without being too long. It has a mix of pictures and text, but isn’t so busy it’s hard to read and follow the narrative. I would say this book would work for kids in fourth grade on up into middle school (and maybe even high school for lower readers or students that are particularly interested in the topic). It’s certainly timely and important. Arguably it’s interesting in that you don’t see the creation of these spaces discussed or focused on in children’s nonfiction much. History buffs may take particular delight in this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A love for rockets, robots, inventions, and a mind for creativity began early in Lonnie Johnson’s life. Growing up in a house full of brothers and sisters, persistence and a passion for problem solving became the cornerstone for a career as an engineer and his work with NASA. But it is his invention of the Super Soaker water gun that has made his most memorable splash with kids and adults.
I think every kid in the nineties had a Super Soaker or at least had a friend with one. But when picking out this book I wondered if it was just nostalgia for people my age or if it would resonate with kids today.
Lonnie Johnson spent his childhood (and adulthood) tinkering with things. He took odds and ends as a kid and put them together to make creations. He took things apart to harvest parts and see how they worked. Then, as he got older, he moved on, with his robot Linex, to make inventions that worked and kept on inventing. He was also persistent and determined, even in the face of failure, an important skill that kids can learn in the makerspace and need to be seeing modeled.
I thought it was refreshing to have a biography of someone who is still alive today. Even better to be adding more diversity to our biography collection. The author’s note adds a bit more context to the story and Barton shares his inspiration for writing the book.
Johnson grew up in the South in the late sixties and into the seventies. Whoosh! does touch on some of the race issues (segregation and racism), but it’s a light touch. I think it was a good balance here where the the purpose of the book was to expose children to a scientist who is black and his inventions instead of dwelling on how he overcame racism. We have a number of those books, and they are excellent, but as I’ve said again and again they create a certain narrative that is not a full picture.
I definitely think children can find inspiration and humor in this story, whether or not they own a Super Soaker or have seen one and it’s the perfect makerspace book. I would hand this to kids who like to invent and tinker. I will also be adding it to our summer reading lists so kids can go out after reading it and have a water fight. I don’t think the time period or nostalgia of the book make it irrelevant for kids today. The message of perseverance and fun in it are timeless.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Welcome to Mammoth Cave. It’s 1840 and my name’s Stephen Bishop. I’ll be your guide, so come with me, by the light of my lantern, into the deepest biggest cave in all of the United States. Down here, beneath the earth, I’m not just a slave. I’m a pioneer. I know the cave’s twists and turns. It taught me to not be afraid of the dark. And watching all these people write their names on the ceiling? Well, it taught me how to read too. Imagine that. A slave, reading. But like I said, down here I’m not just a slave. I’m a guide. I’m a man. And this is my story.
As soon as I read the review of this in the Horn Book I purchased it. Not only does our second grade study slavery (in the context of the Underground Railroad) in the spring, but our third grade does a science unit on caves in the fall. It felt like the perfect bridge between the two grades.
Like all picture book biographies there is a storyline that follows Bishop’s life that is followed up by a historical author’s note that provides more context. I have mixed feelings about that format because I think that kids often skip the two pages of text unless they’re really interested. I suppose that’s fine if they’re getting some good tidbits and thinking points in the story (they do here). However, I think it makes these books perfect for classroom settings where teachers can provide further context and connection and will also be able to read the note aloud to students, ensuring they get that extra information.
I thought the idea of having Bishop tell his own story was an interesting choice. It certainly brings the reader into his life story. I think it also gives the man a voice when he really didn’t have one. According to the note at the end he didn’t leave any real personal record of himself and there wasn’t much left by his white owners or other historical records either. I will point out that this is not #ownvoices, so take that into consideration especially since the book does give a voice to a slave who never really had one.
I’m not sure these are the absolute best illustrations I’ve seen by Collier, but they really tell the story. I actually think the print job on the book could have been better and that the paper and print quality diminished them a bit. Most, if not all the pages (I’m sorry I don’t have the book in front of me right now) have a split level. You see above ground and also below ground which fits perfectly with the idea of the split in Bishops life: above ground- slave, below ground-just a man. There are white people in the pictures, but Bishop is, appropriately, front and center.
Both the cave system and Bishop made for a fascinating picture book biography and would make a good addition to any biography collection.
Side note, going back to print quality. The paper was kind of thin and a little too shiny. It felt kind of cheap. And the dust jacket was like a good several centimeters too long for the hard cover which made it strangely floppy and weird to put into a Gaylord cover. Wth print company? Wth, publisher? Do better. Make nice picture books that will last. The lack of quality kind of makes your second-rating of books about people of color show.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: This poetic, nonfiction story about a little-known piece of African American history captures a human’s capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances and demonstrates how New Orleans’ Congo Square was truly freedom’s heart.
I really love that there is a lot of context provided despite the simple text of the actual story. An informative foreword by Freddie Williams Evans, a historian and Congo Square expert, sets the stage explaining what Congo Square is and why it was/is significant. Her final paragraph ties the past to the present noting that although slavery was abolished people still gather in the square on Sundays to share music, dance, and performance. The text of the story if followed by an Author’s Note that reemphasizes some of the history from the foreword and adds some broader historical context.
Maybe unsurprisingly Freedom brought to mind Weatherford’s The Sound That Jazz Makes. The simple rhymed text that belies the deep history and pain of slavery and the role it played in shaping our country. Both are texts that could easily and confidently be shared with young children (I’ll be reading this to my five year old daughter). They don’t exactly flinch in presenting what happened, but they don’t go into gory detail. They both also share something good that came out of so much bad, here the culture of jazz, public performance, and melding of cultures and in Sound actual jazz music.
The illustrations are reminiscent of early American art, but they also brought to mind Benny Andrews with the long legs and arms and thin bodies. I was particularly drawn to the illustration of Saturday night where the slaves sleep in house-shaped buildings lying and stacked in a way that is reminiscent of slave ships. It was interesting how Christie used color palette and line to change the mood of the book as they slaves approached and celebrated Sunday. The colors don’t change significantly, but there is more color with little splashes breaking up the background expanses. The people during the week are bent at right angles or create clean, upright lines, but as soon as Sunday arrives they curve their bodies and arms, stretching up and out, taking up more space on the page. You also see little joyful details on their clothing like fur tails that wave while dancing, necklaces that swing, and instruments. Simply changing the lines really gives the impression of the freedom of the title.
I wish I had read this before I had gone to New Orleans years ago. I would have loved to pay more attention to Congo Square. I highly recommend this for school libraries to help flesh out their historical collections. For parents, I think this could be a good entree into talking about slavery and its history in our country. New Orleans had an interesting relationship with slavery and with the US since it was also a French and Spanish colony before being purchased, but it isn’t a part of the South that is explicitly studied in schools (at least not out here on the West Coast). I think having books like this show that the South was not monolithic in its history and invites children to look more deeply at an area that is rich in culture.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 31, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A glorious array of Allah’s never-ending bounties that will evoke a child’s feeling of gratitude for everything God, Allah in Arabic, has given – from faith and knowledge to family and health, from animals and nature to food and life itself.
Thank You O Allah is a title I purchased to diversify our collection. Being an independent school we don’t have a lot of religious books (unless you count our 2 billion Christmas books), but there are a handful. There are a couple “biographies” of saints and religious figures (Mary, Joseph, Moses), but mostly our Christian books take the same form as this book. They’re vaguely religious prayers that examine the everyday life and surroundings of a small child and thank God for them. I’m thinking most prominently about the Caldecott winner Prayer for a Child.
There are a couple places where I’m pretty sure this was originally a British release, but it won’t confuse anyone. The text takes on a repetitious form that really has rhythm to it. In some ways it brought to mind the chanting of Islamic texts. The only annoying thing about it was that each verse starts with “And let’s thank…”. I don’t think the “and” was necessary each time. That’s an incredibly minor quibble, though.
The illustrations are really beautiful. Bright and inviting they show things most children will be familiar with except for maybe the Q’aaba. I love the cover, but I am sucker for rainbows (I blame Lisa Frank!). The book is certainly Islam-centric, but I think the message in it could be shared with any child. I would consider using it around Thanksgiving, when kids are gearing up into the gimmies season, as a reminder of all the good things we already have.
I would recommend purchasing it if for no other reason than to be sure you have at least one Islamic book on your shelves. Christian books abound and end up on shelves even if a library or school isn’t religious, so I don’t see why we can’t then have Islamic books too. Plus exposure to Islam will teach children tolerance and make them less ignorant. In terms of quality this one is pretty good with nice illustrations, good text, and nice print quality. I’ve been desperate to find Islamic holiday books and I’m willing to relax my quality standards so we can have them on the shelf, but no compromises needed here.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks—the musical interludes between verses—longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, here’s how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.
This is another one that I have mixed feelings about. I found the story of DJ Kool Herc really interesting. It’s a neat American music story. It’s a great story about an immigrant playing an important role in shaping popular culture. I like the idea of having an artist who is Jamaican-American on the shelves to balance out all the white Classical composers (although our music collection is looking quite diverse after weeding and new additions). I also like that this is a modern black artist and not a slave narrative. We need more modern biographies in our collection.
But! The text is a little long, as it can be in picture book biographies, which make them a hard sell to the kids. I think the hip hop aspect will pull students in, but we don’t have a high circulation of picture book biographies in general. I also wasn’t super captivated by the text. I took an interest in it but didn’t find it terribly memorable. I don’t think either of these things means that it shouldn’t be on my own library’s shelf, just that it might see less circulation. That also means I need to do some leg work to get the kids reading it.
I love the color palette in the illustrations. There are a lot of quiet earth tones with pops of red and aqua. I think it gives an interesting feel to the city setting.
I don’t think this is an essential purchase for every library. If you have kids interested in hip hop, definitely buy it. But an overt interest in hip hop isn’t necessary to enjoy the book. If you have funds I would certainly say you should add it to get some diversity in the music section of your library. If you have a music collection that circulates you should add it. I’m adding this to my ongoing list of books I want to buy. It’s not that long of a list so this will end up on our shelves at some point this year, but our budget is in flux right now so I’m only buying stuff that directly supports our current units of study.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-black musicals instead.
You can be forgiven for not knowing Florence Mills. No recordings or film of her performances exist. And according to the author’s note at the end of the story, what we know about her singing is through what other sources report about her. It brings to mind the lighthouse of Alexandria.
The book is a little text heavy, but is really captivating. I read the story to my test subject (my four-year-old daughter) and she asked to re-read it several times. Mills was a woman of principle and she used her fame to support others and not just herself. She gave to the poor and helped other black performers. She also faced a lot of racism. Watson addresses it rather matter of factly without dwelling on it. The text also provides enough context for kids approaching this on their own to know it was Mills’ race that caused the discrimination and they see how she tried to combat it. I think this provides a very good opportunity for parents and educators to discuss racism. I also think teachers can introduce other black performers who helped break the racial barrier, such as Marian Anderson. Combined with other picture book biographies I think this could make a very interesting study of black entertainers and the discrimination they faced even when they were invited into white spaces. Watson has also woven in lyrics from various songs which, if you know the tunes, could make for a really great read aloud experience.
I love Robinson’s illustrations. The big-eyed Florence is totally endearing. The cut paper/collage style of the pictures and bright colors match the liveliness and adventure of Florence’s life. The scene of her funeral is particularly moving with the blackbirds silhouetted against the white sky and earth-toned buildings. Small blackbirds appear first on the endpapers and make cameos throughout the story as a small nod to Mills nickname. I thought that was clever and it was fun for my daughter to find them as we read.
I think this book is well worth adding to biography collections in libraries. There are more famous entertainers from the same era that could be argued to be more essential, but if you have money I highly recommend it.