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14

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill

On 14, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jazz DayJazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph written by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo

From Goodreads: When Esquire magazine planned an issue to salute the American jazz scene in 1958, graphic designer Art Kane pitched a crazy idea: how about gathering a group of beloved jazz musicians and photographing them? He didn’t own a good camera, didn’t know if any musicians would show up, and insisted on setting up the shoot in front of a Harlem brownstone. Could he pull it off?

Jazz Day has been getting a lot of really positive reviews. I think this book is clever in a lot ways, but I wonder a bit about kid appeal. Does any one else have a hard time selling poetry to their students? I’m not saying they won’t pick it up and read it, because some kids certainly will. Others seem to want to, but more often than not, when I read poetry out loud to the kids, I get mostly confused faces and “huh?”s. Then I just want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, yelling, “Listen to this language and think about it!! Isn’t it amazing?!?!?” It’s like if it isn’t in rhymed couplets (ugh, Dr. Seuss) they can’t follow it.

I don’t think this says anything about the importance or appeal of Jazz Day per se. Instead I think it points more to the need to read more poetry to the kids. (If you aren’t already familiar with Poetry Friday, check them out.) In my personal opinion we should all have amazing jazz book collections considering it’s a true American form of music and celebrates African American contributions to society. It also opens up a lot of very hard discussions about race, racism, and discrimination.

How is that we go from rhymed books and nursery rhymes sung and spoken to our babies and toddlers to nothing resembling poetry? Why does poetry in our curriculum and everyday lives seem so exotic? Is it all the boring and terrible poetry written by white men considered part of the Great Literary Canon that we’re forced to analyze line by line in high school and middle school? I know that certainly turned me off to poetry for a long time. Is it because they aren’t hearing spoken word poetry? I don’t really have the answer here, but it really impacts my ability to get kids to read incredible books like Jazz Day.

Okay, I went way off on a tangent here. The thing is Jazz Day is a pretty amazing collection of poems about a fascinating event that was a little slice of history and yet I don’t think it will be overly popular in our collections. Not because it isn’t worthy or worthwhile, but simply because our kids and teachers don’t know what to do with poetry. Or maybe that’s just my school?

The illustrations here have such an incredible vintage feel. The limited color palette and the lines in it really make the people leap off the page and yet feel like photographs. The reveal of the actual photograph is done beautifully with a fold-out page. The top page is black with one word in white “click” and opening the fold reveals the photograph. The thing is, it took me a minute to realize this wasn’t another painting, but the actual photograph. To my mind, the photo and illustrations blended together so seamlessly.

While the poems in this book are good and the illustrations beautiful, the back matter really shines. There is so much good stuff there that really fleshes out the poems, the history of jazz, and the story of the photograph. I will be forcing this book on our music teacher (who is absolutely incredible) and I know she will take to it and would probably incorporate it into her lessons. She does an entire unit on jazz (and not just during Jazz Appreciation Month). If you have kids who will read poetry, know you have teacher that does a unit on jazz, or want to have a jazz storytime I recommend getting this one. Otherwise balance the need to buy books the kids are most likely to pick up and read with your budget.

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13

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill

On 13, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Skit ScatSkit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald written by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Sean Qualls

From Goodreads: When Ella Fitzgerald danced the Lindy Hop on the streets of 1930s Yonkers, passersby said good-bye to their loose change. But for a girl who was orphaned and hungry, with raggedy clothes and often no place to spend the night, small change was not enough. One amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ella made a discovery: the dancing beat in her feet could travel up and out of her mouth in a powerful song —and the feeling of being listened to was like a salve to her heart.

Wow! This book really brought Ella Fitzgerald to life. It was a slow build, and it was rather long, but well worth the read.

Instead of focusing on Ella’s successful career or the entirety of her life, Skit-Scat looks at her teenage years. She grew up in Yonkers and loved to dance. She and her friend Charlie would dance on the street corner where they earned a few cents. At 14 her mother died suddenly and this began a spiral downwards for Ella. She lived with an “unkind” step father (the book does not specify what that meant) and was then taken in by a cold and austere aunt. She got into some trouble with the law and was then sent to an abysmal orphan school. After two years of abuse, Ella ran away and couch surfed and lived on the street in Harlem. It doesn’t specify if or how she made money during that time, but it was the Depression and money was tight for everyone. She began trying out at amateur nights at clubs and won two contests.

Unfortunately she was rough around the edges in second hand clothes, messy hair, and dirty. This made it hard to find work with bands who expected her to be presentable. No easy prospect for a homeless teen. Fortunately her talent landed her a job with the Chick Webb Band and they saw past her exterior and helped clean her up. I was so surprised that Fitzgerald was homeless and abused. It isn’t the story you usually picture or hear about her. It breaks your heart, but her story is also very uplifting. A true rags to riches tale.

The writing, despite being long, was engaging. It has little interjections like “clink, plink, roll” and “ding a-ding a-ding” that add some of the verve of jazz in the 30s to the text. In my personal opinion, I wish the illustrations were a little more brightly colored, but Qualls’ illustrations are always lively and expressive. Definitely worth adding to a biography collection. It’s a little long for a read aloud during a storytime, but would make a great addition to a classroom curriculum that studies music, jazz, the arts, the Depression, or African Americans.

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07

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas

On 07, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hello RubyHello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas

From Goodreads: Meet Ruby—a small girl with a huge imagination, and the determination to solve any puzzle. As Ruby stomps around her world making new friends, including the Wise Snow Leopard, the Friendly Foxes, and the Messy Robots, kids will be introduced to the fundamentals of computational thinking, like how to break big problems into small ones, create step-by-step plans, look for patterns and think outside the box through storytelling. Then, these basic concepts at the core of coding and programming will be reinforced through fun playful exercises and activities that encourage exploration and creativity.

Hello Ruby is an interesting hybrid of chapter book and activity book. Oddly, though, the activities are included in the back half of the book and not in or at the end of each chapter. The introduction also says that the book is designed for a parent to read the story to their child(ren) and work through the activities together.

The story is cute and simple with a pretty easy reading level (with some help a second grader could manage), however it jumps from something realistic into what I think is Ruby’s imagination. Ruby’s dad has hidden gems and left her some cryptic messages as clues to finding them. I was a little confused as to how Ruby managed to create a map for a world that I thought was supposed to be around her house, but ended up with a river and a forest. I stuck with it and the story eventually made more sense, it just required accepting that this was not our world. I’m not sure kids will be thrown by the leap into Ruby’s imagination since they are less familiar with genres and rules about worlds and stories. Some of the chapters were a little confusing unless you looked at and did the activities with them.

I did appreciate that the activities built on each other, getting more difficult as the book went on. One helps kids understand Booleans which I might have to use in the library when we talk about them.

In case you were wondering about the diversity tag on this book, I considered it diverse because Ruby is involved in computer science, something that is not traditionally assumed to be a girl’s activity.

I’m going to spend next week going through the chapters and exercises with my daughter to see how engaging it is for kids (I realize she’s a little younger than this is probably gear toward, but it will give me a sense). Considering it needs a parent to go through it with the child (not a bad thing! I wish more parents of older kids were still reading and working with their kids), it’s probably not the kind of book that would be popular in my library. It should work for a public library or a home collection if coding is popular. What I think I might do is buy it to have in the makerspace I run.

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05

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Magic Windows by Carmen Lomas Garza

On 05, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Magic WindowsMagic Windows/ Ventanas magicas by Carmen Lomas Garza

From Goodreads: We look into Carmen’s studio and see her paint a Mexican jarabe tapatio dancer; we glimpse the hummingbirds that cross the US-Mexico border to taste the sweet nectar of the cactus flowers; and we watch Carmen teach her nieces and nephews how to make their own magic windows. Magic Windows is a continuing tribute to family and community as well as a way for Carmen to connect future generations to their ancestors by teaching and sharing with them this traditional folk art.

We are very fortunate in that our students take a foreign language in lower school (beginning in Kindergarten). The purpose of the program is not to create bilingual students, but to give the children exposure to another language and develop an ear for other languages. They can choose from French and Spanish (I really wish there were more options). I discovered this year that our Spanish teacher bought some books featuring Latina characters and a few bilingual books and while I tend to buy books that I want to use every year in my lessons and totally understood her impulse, I also felt a little like the library had let her down! We have a small collection of Spanish language and Latinx culture books, but it could be a little richer. So, now I’m keeping my eye out for books that can build that collection too. (So many places to build up the collection!)

I came across Magic Windows in a blog post somewhere and was intrigued and was rewarded with a fascinating book. It’s part family memoir, part art instruction, part culture introduction. Each page features a cut paper illustration that Garza has done with an explanation of what the picture is depicting. She also goes into her family history a bit with them, encourages the reader by sharing tidbits about making the papel picado, and shares some of the culture around various iconography. Each page features a few short paragraphs with this information in English and in Spanish.

Due to the length of the book I would say it’s better suited to older grades (second and up), but you could easily share a page or two with younger students. It would be a great jumping off point for an study into cut paper illustration and art. You could also pair it with books illustrated by Nikki McClure who uses a similar technique. It would also go well with a study of families and how we talk about them, honor them, celebrate them, and share our traditions and memories.

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01

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Biography Review: Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

On 01, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CarverCarver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

From Goodreads: George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri about 1864 and was raised by the childless white couple who had owned his mother. In 1877 he left home in search of an education, eventually earning a master’s degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to start the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute, where he spent the rest of his life seeking solutions to the poverty among landless black farmers by developing new uses for soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Carver’s achievements as a botanist and inventor were balanced by his gifts as a painter, musician, and teacher.

This was an incredible and eye-opening book. Unsurprisingly I learned nothing about Carver in my history classes and I’m pretty sure no one is explicitly studying him in any of our current social studies curriculums. Such a shame because he was a fascinating figure. While relegated to terrible jobs on chicken farms because of the pervasive racism at the time he did some incredible research into soil science and farming. All of it was inspired by a desire to help poor black people raise themselves out of poverty and do a better job farming. Carver is best known for peanut butter, I think, but there was SO much more to his studies.

I love novels in verse and this was an wonderful way to open up the history here. Carver really came to life on the page as did the times he lived in. Nelson’s work is always worth reading, but especially this book.

A heads up: the n-word appears in one (possibly two) of the poems. In context I think it makes sense, so it isn’t gratuitous use of the word. The inclusion of the word didn’t make or break my decision not to purchase the book, either. I do hesitate, however, to have materials with slurs or with stereotyped/racist content and depictions on our shelves because our students are not having conversations around that material, particularly the materials they pick up in the library (they take them home, read them on their own, and return them). Instead of learning about the power of words (or images) and how hurtful they can be and how they can be used intentionally to hurt and oppress others, they are simply internalizing those images and words. And that is insidious. It eats away at their ability to call out racism (and other -isms) and see how it truly influences our world.

More to the point, though, for buying this for an elementary school library, is the reading ability required to follow the narrative. The poems aren’t totally straight forward. It’s free verse, but the mix of narrators and settings made it a little harder to follow. This makes for a deep reading experience, but one that I think is above even my fifth grader’s heads. Sometimes I can make the case that strong fourth grade readers and fifth graders can handle a book that is more middle school (Almost Astronauts for example, or Moonbird), but with the verse format in Carver, I think they would really struggle.

I would have no hesitation buying this book for a middle or high school library, however. I would highly recommend it for an English and/or history class to use too. There is so much good information and history and writing here. So much!

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28

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Celebrate Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr by Deborah Heiligman

On 28, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Celebrate RamadanCelebrate Ramadan & Eid Al-Fitr with Praying, Fasting, and Charity by Deborah Heiligman (National Geographic Holidays Around the World)

From Goodreads: Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, and Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the fast’s end, are sacred times for millions throughout the world. Celebrate Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitrexamines the reasons for the month-long dawn-to-dusk fast and observes some of the wide variety of celebrations at the end of the fast worldwide.

I was surprised when I saw the author on this one. It’s Deborah Heiligman who wrote Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith (a phenomenal, fascinating, and well researched book). Her authorship here strikes me as problematic, though. She’s written two others in this series, but on holidays more typically celebrated by Americans. The text is also written in the first person (“During Ramadan, we get up very early in the morning…” p.8, emphasis mine) which adds another layer to this issue. I trust her ability to research based on her other books, but I wish these companies would hire insiders to write these texts. I find it incredibly hard to believe that there are no Muslim authors out there who are willing to write nonfiction about their religion.

Authorship aside, the content in this one is good. It has some larger text on each page that acts like a topic heading and often an informational picture caption. Then there is a longer section of text. It makes the book good for sharing across an age range. Read the headings and picture captions (and maybe some of the smaller text) to younger children, read the whole page to older audiences. It’s also a book new readers could tackle on their own, I’m thinking third and fourth grade ages.

Nonfiction makes for a tough read aloud, or at least it can, but this one has engaging text and would work so long as you are able to skip text to keep interest and engagement high. I would also highly recommend asking questions and helping make connections as you go along. The fact that the book does use the first person really helps move the text along and engage the reader, which is why I would be willing to overlook that.

The pictures in the book are awesome. They show a mix of families and people including Muslims who are American, girls in hijab practicing martial arts (!!!!), and Muslims wearing traditional clothing. There is a picture of Muslim kids in Jakarta and one of a boy in Washington DC reading the Qur’an while wearing his soccer uniform. The caption explains that he will spend two years memorizing the Qur’an and is an avid soccer player with his friends. (I can’t decide if that is the publisher trying too hard to make the scene look casual and familiar or if it gives the reader a glimpse of another aspect of the boy’s life, does he come right from soccer practice? does he always read Qur’an in his soccer uniform and cleats?) There are kids in Afghanistan, girls in Nepal, women in China and men in India. For these books that share Islam with non-Muslims I think it’s important to show that they are not confined to the Middle East, but are all over and look like anyone else.

The back matter is pretty good too. It includes a recipe, a list of books and websites to discover more. Best of all there is an explanation of the lunar calendar and how it differs from the Gregorian calendar. Something I haven’t seen well explained in other books about Islam and Ramadan.

If you can put aside the authorship and use of the first person, then this is well worth having in your library (or home) collection. If not, that’s very understandable. I would go for Ramadan written by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi.

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26

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Ramadan Islamic Holy Month by Terri Sievert

On 26, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ramadan Islamic Holy MonthRamadan: Islamic Holy Month by Terri Sievert (Facts First)

From Goodreads: Provides a description of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, how it started, and ways people celebrate this cultural holiday.

This was another good nonfiction book about Ramadan. It was also the only one that is strictly about Ramadan and doesn’t contain any extraneous information about Islam. On the one hand, I like that it’s so tightly focused and keeps kids from confusing basic information and tenants of the faith with the holiday. On the other hand, kids who would be reading this book will primarily be non-Muslim and might really need a little extra context. Particularly because the book is very simple and easy to read and is, therefore, geared toward younger audiences who will probably not have a lot of context or general knowledge to draw on to make sense of the book.

The book covers all the basics of the holiday, from fasting to zakat. There is also a little inspirational story about a basketball player, Hakeem Olajuwon, who is Mulsim and fasted during “some important games” despite the difficulty. There are also instructions at the end for making a collection jar. I have mixed feelings about that, too. It’s kind of  a one-off sort of “celebration” of the holiday, but collecting money for the poor isn’t a bad thing either. The photographs show a mix of Muslims, which is good.

I guess, in the end, this is a worthwhile book to have in the collection, particularly if you don’t have many other books on Ramadan. I still think you only need a small handful of informational books about holidays and are better off having storybooks.

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25

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Ramadan by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi

On 25, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RamadanRamadan written by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi, illustrated by Omar Rayyan

From Goodreads: Hakeem and his family observe Ramadan together — the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. They fast, they pray, all according to the belief of Quran first revealed fourteen centuries ago. It is a time to reflect on one’s actions, to give to charity, and to celebrate one’s faith.

To be honest this is one of the best books about Ramadan I have read thus far.The loose story follows Hakeem, a young Muslim boy, through the month. The book covers the meaning of Ramadan, how it is celebrated, and about Eid al-Fitr in a lot of depth (for a children’s picture book). There is a lot of text in this one making it better suited to older readers and children with longer attention spans, which is too bad because the information it contains puts all those easier-to-read books to shame. Again, if I’m honest, this is the type of book I would prefer to share with my students.

I did think there was an odd disconnect here between the amount of text and complexity of it which made it seem more suitable to a third or fourth grade audience (or older) and how young Hakeem seems in the illustrations. Does that matter? Maybe, maybe not. I know getting older kids to read picture books is hard and it might be harder with a young looking narrator. It’s such a beautiful book, though.

I am a huge fan of Rayyan’s illustrations. They are so beautiful. He has an Etsy shop that you can purchase prints of some of his works on. He does such an incredible job painting intricate patterns and his use of color is stunning. Oftentimes when illustrators draw people in a realistic way they can come out looking strange or distorted. Rayyan captures people’s expressions beautifully.

I think that this is a book best suited for sharing in a classroom where teachers and students can pore over it and study various aspects of the holiday around the book. Because of the length I’m just not sure how many kids will pick it up on their own. I still encourage you to have it in your school library where you can lend it out to teachers during Ramadan or read it to your students when they come to you. You might even be able to read parts and entice some kids to check it out to read the rest.

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22

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Non-Fiction Review: Ramadan by David Marx

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

Ramdan RookieRamadan written by David F. Marx (Rookie Read-About Holidays)

From Amazon: Following the well-known and much-loved Rookie Books format, these fun and informative books introduce early elementary-school children to the basic facts about major holidays. Each book explains the development of the holiday and how it is celebrated today, and includes holiday games, traditions, crafts, and foods.

I usually like this series and have even bought a couple titles in it for my own daughter, but this one, particularly compared to others that I will review this week, just fell very flat. The biggest issue I took was that it didn’t feel very informative about Ramadan. Don’t get me wrong, there is information here about the holiday, but it felt almost too simplified to make it sound particularly special or celebratory. It also has other facts about Muslims inserted into the text that made it feel discombobulated.

I will say, it has one very big thing going for it and that is a depiction of all kinds of Muslims. There are Arabs, Southeast Asians, blacks (they look American to me, but I’m not sure), people who look Indian and Pakistani, people who look Iranian. I haven’t seen a lot of books that show a mix of Muslims. Admittedly most of the books I have reviewed up to this point feature one family in a story as opposed to a non-fiction narrative, still seeing non-Arab Muslims seems to be rare.

I wouldn’t say don’t buy the book, especially if you have a younger population. Don’t buy it for your Muslim patrons, it’s way too basic for those kids. I would buy other books for your collection first unless you need something super inexpensive or want to have lots of books on the shelf.

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18

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Surfer of the Century by Ellie Crowe

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

Surfer of the CenturySurfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku written by Ellie Crowe, illustrated by Richard Waldrep

From Goodreads: The true story of Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, six-time Olympic swimming champion and legendary surfer who popularized surfing around the world.

Considering our diversity numbers in our biography collection, I was surprised we had a copy of this in the library. It’s been on my TBR pile for about a year now and I decided to pick it up just before the end of school and see if it might work for our summer reading lists.

I think kids will really enjoy the story because Kahanamoku was very driven and inspiring. When he couldn’t get into the local surf club because he was native Hawaiian, he and his friends made their own. When he wanted to swim, he hopped in the water and invented a new technique to make himself swim faster. He much preferred being in the water to being in school and I think we all know kids who will relate to that! Be sure to read the notes at the back. The story of how he met his wife is both funny, touching, and surprising.

Besides being a refreshing and much needed book about a Native Hawaiian , a woefully underrepresented culture in children’s literature, that doesn’t involve the hula and coconut palms this is also a book about sports we don’t see a lot of, namely swimming and surfing. I am sure there are plenty of students in my library who, at the very least, swim and would love to see that interest in some of their books. (E.g. we have a lot of baseball and basketball and even quite a bit of football, but not many other sports on our shelves.) I can’t speak to how well it portrays Native Hawaiians, but it does address the discrimination that Kahanamoku faced particularly in sports/swimming. It isn’t unlike many of the African American sports figures from the same era and I highly recommend pairing it with books about Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and others.

I loved the illustrations in the book. Something about the technique and color palette that gives it a fun, summery feel. It is a picture book biography which means there is a fair amount of text, so in terms of reading level and attention span this is best suited to fourth grade and up but could certainly be read to younger audiences if there is interest. This is the perfect addition to any summer reading list. Not only is Kahanamoku worth reading about, but who doesn’t want to read about swimming, Hawaii, and surfing in the summer?

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