Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to Top

To Top

nonfiction

11

Sep
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton

On 11, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

whooshWhoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions written by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate

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.

Tags | , , , , , , , ,

10

Sep
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Lift Your Light a Little Higher by Heather Henson

On 10, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

lift-your-lightLift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop Slave-Explorer written by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier

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.

Tags | , , , , , , , ,

03

Sep
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford

On 03, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Congo SquareFreedom in Congo Square written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

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.

 

Tags | , , , , , , ,

31

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Thank You O Allah! by Ayesha bint Mahmood

On 31, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Thank you O AllahThank You O Allah! written by Ayesha bint Mahmood, illustrated by Asiya Clarke

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.

Tags | , , , , , , ,

23

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill

On 23, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

When the Beat Was BornWhen the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop written by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

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.

Tags | , , , , , , , ,

22

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Harlem’s Little Blackbird by Renee Watson

On 22, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Harlem's Little BlackbirdHarlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills written by Rene Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson

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.

Tags | , , , , , , , ,

18

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina by Fatima Sharafeddine

On 18, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ibn SinaThe Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina written by Fatima Sharafeddine, illustrated by Intelaq Mohammed Ali

Form Goodreads: Born in Persia more than a thousand years ago, Ibn Sina was one of the greatest thinkers of his time — a philosopher, scientist and physician who made significant discoveries, especially in the field of medicine, and wrote more than one hundred books. As a child, Ibn Sina was extremely bright, a voracious reader who loved to learn and was fortunate to have the best teachers. He memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and completed his medical studies at sixteen. He spent his life traveling, treating the sick, seeking knowledge through research, and writing about his discoveries. He came up with new theories in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy and education. His most famous work is The Canon of Medicine, a collection of books that were used for teaching in universities across the Islamic world and Europe for centuries.

So I wasn’t totally captivated by the text in this one. It was in first person which I understand brings the reader closer to the subject, but it also made for a few awkward places. In looking further at the book I discovered that it was originally published in Arabic, which might explain the awkwardness. Things lost in translation.

Otherwise, Ibn Sina made me feel totally inadequate. NBD. He just finished his medical studies at 16. I mean I know it wasn’t like medical school these days, but still. 16. Clearly the man was a genius. The story of his accomplishments was really fascinating. He did a lot and was very interested in life long learning. He studied philosophy, education and even advocated for what we might today consider respectful parenting and teaching.

I wish there had been a little more historical context. He moved around a lot as an adult, but there was only a brief mention that one of the cities he lived in was frequently fighting with another. I think kids in the US will not be particularly familiar with the geography or history of the area or era and need more information. But I also understand that it could potentially make the book unwieldy and boring. A longer more detailed author’s note might have sufficed. I did appreciate that Sharafeddine noted that Islamic contributions to the world are rarely taught in US schools and that was a driving factor in bringing out this book.

I really like the illustrations. They’re done on a speckled brownish paper that makes the colors pop and is different from the usual white paper. The lines are so soft and the shading is spectacular. Everyone has these huge half moon eyes that make them kind of darling and friendly. The illustrations were done in colored pencil and are so saturated and rich.

I’ll definitely be buying this as our budget allows this year. We need more Islamic biographies and I don’t think we have anything on the Islamic Golden Age. The illustrations will entice my students to pick it up. My complaints about the text aren’t significant enough for me to not purchase it.

Tags | , , , , , , ,

17

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Sky Painter by Margarita Engle

On 17, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Sky PainterThe Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Aliona Bereghici

From Goodreads: Louis loves to watch birds. He takes care of injured birds and studies how they look and how they move. His father wants him to become an engineer, but Louis dreams of being a bird artist. To achieve this dream, he must practice, practice, practice. He learns from the art of John James Audubon. But as Louis grows up, he begins to draw and paint living, flying birds in their natural habitats.

I think these are very loosely poems, but it flows so nicely. Not that poetry can’t or usually doesn’t, but it feels more like prose. I’m just not positive it isn’t technically in verse? If that makes any sense. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The book is very interesting and the format really lets you into Louis Fuertes’ life.

The illustrations add little peeks into his life as he ages. The little boy becomes a young man. Children and a wife appear next to the bathtub hosting a loon while Louis sketches. His hairline recedes and grays. Neighborhood children gather around him in his study. While the text mentions all these things the illustrations really bring the small details to life.

One illustration features a picture from Audubon’s book of North American birds. My own daughter is familiar with Audubon’s work and I explained why Fuertes was important in changing how birds were observed and drawn. Audubon killed all his models and drew them. Fuertes observed live birds and kept them that way. Teachers and parents reading the book could use it to start a conversation about how our scientific methods and ideas have changed and improved over the years.

Amazon had the book nearly 50% off so I purchased it right away. Our first grade does a bird unit and I thought this would make a fantastic addition to the collection to support that study. I would certainly pair it with the picture book biography of Audubon that came out a couple years ago, but I thought this one felt warmer and more inviting. Maybe because I’m a bird person and find Audubon’s method a little disturbing. The text and illustrations feel youngish, but totally appropriate for lower elementary down to preschool.

Tags | , , , , , , , ,

16

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick Lewis

On 16, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

When Thunder ComesWhen Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So

From Goodreads: In moving verse, Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis gives new voice to seventeen heroes of civil rights. Exquisitely illustrated by five extraordinary artists, this commanding collection of poems invites the reader to hear in each verse the thunder that lies in every voice, no matter how small. Featuring civil rights luminaries Coretta Scott King, Harvey Milk, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Mendez, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mamie Carthan Till, Helen Zia, Josh Gibson, Dennis James Banks, Mitsuye Endo, Ellison Onizuka, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

This is definitely for older audiences. The poems are unflinching in what they look at- KKK murders (Freedom Summer), racially motivated murders (Emmett Till), deep seated hatred (Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, Japanese Internment)- and the back matter includes more information.

I am reminded a bit of Rad American Women by this book, I think simply because it’s a book of activists and probably by the broad range of people examined. But the format it completely different. These are poems introducing children to people who have fought for civil rights all across the globe and for different groups of disadvantaged people. I didn’t personally click with a lot of them, but that’s just me. I think they will give kids exposure to a lot people they are probably not familiar with, but should have some awareness of- Harvey Milk and Aung San Suu Kyi to name two.

I don’t know why on my first pass through I didn’t realize that there were a number of illustrators including John Parra who I just saw in Marvelous Cornelius and who has a distinctive style. I really loved all the pictures here and I think they could serve as a good entree for reluctant poetry/nonfiction readers.

When Thunder Comes would be so worth putting on our shelves and I will add it to the collection development list, but it’s going to be a damn hard sell. It’s for older readers; it’s a picture book with picture book trim size; and it’s poetry. Those are three types of literature that do not leave our shelves all rolled into one. But I also very strongly believe that marketability can be created. I know there are teachers that would use this and with good readers advisory kids will pick it up. If you talk to your children about civil right struggles or if your school does anything with civil rights I suggest looking into adding this to your library purely for the range of people introduced here.

Tags | , , , , , , , ,

12

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Marvelous Cornelius by Phil Bildner

On 12, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Marvelous CorneliusMarvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans written by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra

From Goodreads: In New Orleans, there lived a man who saw the streets as his calling, and he swept them clean. He danced up one avenue and down another and everyone danced along. The old ladies whistled and whirled. The old men hooted and hollered. The barbers, bead twirlers, and beignet bakers bounded behind that one-man parade. But then came the rising Mississippi—and a storm greater than anyone had seen before. In this heartwarming book about a real garbage man, Phil Bildner and John Parra tell the inspiring story of a humble man and the heroic difference he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When I first saw this book I wondered if kids knew or cared about Hurricane Katrina. The kids in my classes were all born after the storm and probably have very little awareness of it. That’s probably not true for kids in New Orleans or the surrounding areas, but how much awareness do even they have? After reading the book, though, I don’t think any of that matters. Katrina is never named in the text of the story and it isn’t a book that focuses on the storm per se. Merely, it shows Cornelius rising to the challenge of cleaning up his city and helping his community in the way he knows best even when the task seems insurmountable.

I’m not really clear on what the message is here. Is it that we should be good at whatever it is we find ourselves doing? Is it about the human spirit and its resiliency even in the face of catastrophe? Is it about the specialness of New Orleans itself? Maybe it’s all these things. In the end it doesn’t really matter. I think this would be a great classroom resource for opening up a discussion about how we can help each other after a disaster, not necessarily a disaster. A good entree for talking about how important community is. Even a good discussion starter about what happened in New Orleans during Katrina. I certainly think that is relevant today in light of all the race-related issues our country is facing.

I appreciate that this is a book about a modern African American. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, we have a lot of books that feature African Americans during the slavery era and the Civil Rights era, but lack them in modern day stories. This is more prevalent with Native Nations, but I find it’s true to about African Americans, too.

John Parra’s illustrations are bright and lively and that matches so well with the verve Cornelius brings to his job. The Crescent City, and specifically the French Quarter is recognizable in all the illustrations. Marvelous Cornelius would be a delightful addition to any collection. I don’t think it’s a necessary purchase, but if you’re looking to add diversity to your shelves here’s a great way to do that.

Tags | , , , , , , ,