By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, César Chavez lived the hard-scrabble life of a migrant worker during the depression. He grew to be a charismatic leader and founded the National Farm Workers Association, an organization that fought for basic rights for his fellow farm workers.
This is a book we already have in our library and I’m very glad we do. Not only is it a great poetry and picture book biography, but I think in California it’s especially important we have materials on Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers.
I absolutely love Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull and read it out loud to my second and third grade students this past year around Cesar Chavez day. None of them were aware of who Chavez was or what he had done. They were only vaguely aware of the migrant farm workers who plant, tend and pick most of our produce. And we live in California’s Central Valley. Our curriculum does a good job of talking about and presenting slavery and even the Civil Rights Movement (thanks to our music teacher, of all people) but we don’t talk much about the struggles of people other than African Americans.
In Cesar the poems got a bit confusing in the middle of Cesar’s life, but either with a little background information (provided by the author’s notes in the back or a teacher) kids won’t have any trouble getting through. Not only does poetry let children approach difficult topics, it can also makes reading feel like a breeze. Short lines, few words on a page, and rhythm and rhyme help those reluctant and struggling readers through a whole book. And yet, it conveys so much. So much emotion and information and story.
I think Cesar is worth having in most library collections, but I would recommend making sure you have more resources about either Chavez or the fight for farm workers. I also recommend having Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh about Sylvia Mendez. All these books together, in a small strong collection, will give students a more complete picture of the struggle for civil rights and more awareness about where their food comes from.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.
Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.
I actually picked this up to see if it might work for our lower school biography collection and I think it might. The length isn’t bad (we have longer, drier biographies on the shelf) and there isn’t anything particularly shocking in it (Bly is asked at one point if she is a nightwalker, but it’s such a brief mention that it will probably pass most younger kids by). Really, though, the book is just so gripping I can totally see some of my older students getting sucked in. We have a picture book biography of Nellie and she’s a fascinating female character that rather broke with convention in her time. I think this would be a good place to go from that picture book if the kids are interested in learning more.
There is the issue of the care of the “insane”. This is Nellie’s reason for becoming a madwoman. She wanted to write an expose on how female patients were treated in the facilities that “cared” for women that were deemed insane. These women were abused. Many were not insane at all, but did not fit within societal expectation. It’s not a pretty scene that Nellie shows the world and while this is clearly written for children, it’s not a pretty scene that readers will discover. Kids will love to feel the outrage that Nellie felt over the conditions she reported on. Lucky for Nellie she was always going to get out. The book could certainly open up a lot of conversations about treatment of the mentally ill (something we are better at to be sure, but are still sadly lacking in) and unfair restrictions and expectations placed on women.
There is a lot about Nellie Bly in this book. Information about her childhood and her career. Nellie herself struggled with the low expectations for women of her era. She chaffed against them, but she was also able to rise to the challenge and find ways to make a living and buck convention. She was really quite interesting and I’m sure her story will fascinate any reader who picks this book up. A good one for an upper elementary and middle school biography collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Benny Andrews loved to draw. He drew his nine brothers and sisters, and his parents. He drew the red earth of the fields where they all worked, the hot sun that beat down, and the rows and rows of crops. As Benny hauled buckets of water, he made pictures in his head. And he dreamed of a better life—something beyond the segregation, the backbreaking labor, and the limited opportunities of his world. Benny’s dreams took him far from the rural Georgia of his childhood. He became one of the most important African American painters of the twentieth century, and he opened doors for other artists of color. His story will inspire budding young artists to work hard and follow their dreams.
This is exactly what a picture book biography should be for younger audiences. It uses the artist’s art as more than just a bit of decoration and the text is short, to the point, and very understandable.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that it uses Andrews actual art to illustrate it. Obviously you can’t do that with every picture book biography, but in this case Andrews drew the world he saw around him and in a way that is accessible to children. It makes the book feel very much like an intimate glimpse into his life.
To me one of the really appealing aspects of his art is the lighting he uses. It looks very bright, almost harsh. This has the effect of making the colors pop, which I think children will find very appealing. I’ve said this at other times and I understand that great art is not actually easy to create, however there is a child-like look to Andrews art and I think kids like to see art that they think they could recreate or that looks like their art. His pictures also have an element of collage to them and that makes them feel a little more three dimensional instead of flat paintings.
The text itself isn’t long. There is a short paragraph on each two-page spread with a piece of Andrew’s art. This does mean that you don’t get an exhaustive look at Andrew’s life, but for younger readers (second and third grade) it’s perfect. Not enough text to turn them off and not too little to feel too young. You get enough information that you have a sense of who Andrews was and what he accomplished and, if you find him interesting enough, a desire to learn more. Sometimes I think picture book biographies try to present too much information for the format and it ends up feeling taxing to read. Almost a bait and switch- you think you’re getting a shorter picture book and you end up slogging through something much longer and more involved. It’s a turn off for kids. Draw What You See balances text and pictures very well and then includes a note at the end, a timeline, and some resources. Kids can decide if they want to seek out more at the end.
I think this would be a great book for any library with a biography collection. It’s completely appropriate for younger and older audiences, too. It should draw in those kids just coming to picture book biographies, but it could very easily pique older reader’s interest in the artist. Again, another that is on my first list of purchases for next year. We need more diversity in that collection and here is a book that is both interesting and high quality.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers About a Familiar Fowl written and illustrated by Robin Page
From Goodreads: Celebrated author-illustrator Robin Page leads a step-by-step, question-and-answer-style journey through the world of chickens. Along the way you’ll explore different breeds, discover different types of coops, and learn everything there is to know about chicken reproduction and hatching.
I had to pick this book up. For starters it’s about chickens, but also, that chicken on the cover could be our Rhode Island Red. I love chickens!
I seem to remember reading a review of this book that talked about the text being fairly difficult. At least for picture book nonfiction. It’s certainly not easy. Done in question and answer style, each page has a fair amount of text on it, but it’s all very clearly written. I read it to my four-year-old daughter and she had no trouble comprehending it.
The information itself is true (see my rant about that here) and interesting. And it answers some basic questions about how egg production works. I cannot tell you how many people do not understand egg production and chickens. The most common question we get is if a rooster is needed to get hens to lay eggs. No. If there was a rooster there would be babies, folks. Basic biology there. Let’s be sure our children know where eggs come from and how that whole process works.
An excellent book for schools that have units on birds and/or farm animals. It would also make a nice addition to public library collections as most children love farm animals and are curious about them (I borrowed the copy from my public library).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Feb 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I know there are a lot of problematic nonfiction titles out there for children in terms of race, religion, culture, etc. Unfortunately we have quite a few of them in our library collection right now. But as I am working more closely with kids in the library on research projects I am discovering that there are some deep issues with children’s nonfiction across the board. It’s not just those problematic titles that need to be reconsidered and weeded.
I guess I started noticing this a few years ago, but it’s become most apparent in the last two weeks to me with the research project I’m working on with my second graders. The vast majority…no, all of the nonfiction we have on the Underground Railroad contains incorrect information. And not just one or two insignificant facts. Big glaring untruths. I’ve noticed it in history texts about Ancient Egypt too because that’s what I studied in college and this seriously makes me wonder if it’s endemic to children’s nonfiction. (I bring this up a bit here in my review of a book about Hatshepsut.)
I’m not just finding these half truths and fairy tales (as a good friend of mine called it) in books printed for children. It’s in the database our library subscribes to. YIKES! Through another friend I know that unless you are reading peer-reviewed journal articles from a database the articles are written by copy writers, so the articles are only as good as their research. The friend I heard this from actually writes for one of the large database companies (or has in the past) and she would turn the articles out in an afternoon. That included the research and the writing. I’m not trying to be critical of her (I actually trust her), just the companies that don’t require more work and research behind the articles they put out and don’t do some due diligence and fact check them. Or better yet, pay people who are experts in the field of the article to write them.
These inaccuracies cause several problems for me. The first and most pressing is that I’m at a loss of what to use for good resources for my students. These guys are second graders so their reading skills are just coming together and they need simplified resources. That’s why we had relied on a lot of those nonfiction books and articles to begin with. I’m finding ways to get them the information they need, but it’s a lot of work on my part and isn’t ideal. Most of the resources need to be read aloud to them so they can understand the information. I will say, though, telling them about this problem and the process I’m going through is an excellent lesson for them to instill skepticism and impress on them how important thorough research is.
I’m also finding that not only do children’s nonfiction titles frequently not cite sources (another excellent lesson for my students), even when they do they aren’t always good sources. In fact a lot of these inaccuracies are perpetuated by a few sources that everyone seems to consult. Which leads to the second problem, I really just want to weed our entire nonfiction collection. Just throw every book out and start over. I already am weeding to some extent, but I think it needs to be gone over with a fine tooth comb now.
Once I’ve purged all the incorrect things though, I don’t have many, if any, places to turn to find good books to put back on the shelves, which is the third problem this raises. With all these books either not citing sources or relying on the same outdated or incorrect information sources (and in my bleak state of mind) I don’t know where to turn next to build a solid collection. I can’t fact check every book and I would need to be buying them and reading each and every one before putting it into our collection- a task that is both too time consuming and a huge hassle, but something I will probably have to do for the time being.
I do think one solution is to have a small, but incredibly well curated nonfiction collection. I would rather they had only a few places to turn than a lot of bad ones. Is anyone else noticing this or grappling with it? Thoughts, ideas, solutions? Please be careful about what you are putting on your shelves!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
From Goodreads: Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple”, A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports; C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy; D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers; and E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.
And the list of great women continues, spanning several centuries, multiple professions, and 26 diverse individuals. There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds.
This is technically probably not a chapter book and it certainly has a high reading level, but the format is so close to a chapter book and it’s so perfect for those kids who are reading chapter books.
The mix of women and movements they started or supported is incredible. Kids will be exposed to all sorts of activism, from political to social to historical, and may even find a cause they can be passionate about. The book is both a great history lesson and a great lesson in fights for equality and justice that are still going on. Some of the women may be familiar to kids from curriculum, media or other picture books, but many won’t be and that’s fantastic.
The book does require a bit of outside knowledge. There is mention of types of music, historical movements, and ideas that the book doesn’t focus on defining. This isn’t a failing per se, but it will require that the reader have some exposure to these ideas or that you open up conversations with them about them. I hope it does open up those conversations in homes and in classrooms because we need to be having them and kids need to be aware of them.
I really hate to be critical of artwork because I have no talent as an artist, but some of the portraits in the book aren’t as good as others. I love the style- cut paper on a bold, single-colored background and the majority of them are great portraits of the people. And I am over the moon that it is not some pink and girly book despite it being all women. It’s just that a few of the portraits have little odd elements (odd hands or wrinkles) that make them seem off and I think that’s due in part to the style. It’s hard to capture detail with the broad swaths of cut paper. Will that bother kids reading this? I’m not sure. Many kids latch onto things like that and may be more likely to in a book that touches on some uncomfortable topics in an effort to channel their awkwardness. It’s such a minor complaint though in a book that is rad.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: People have been gobbling up yummy, nutritious raisins for centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans awarded them at sporting events and astronauts have taken raisins into space. Find out how grapes become raisins, who introduced the seedless grape, and the many uses for raisins.
Oddly enough we picked up a copy of this book four years ago at the SunMaid Raisin factory. At the time I had no idea who had written it (I just didn’t pay any attention), but we liked the information and how it was presented.
The book is clearly informational, but Ryan writes little rhyming questions and then answers them. This makes for a more engaging nonfiction book. My own daughter has been willing to read the book for a couple years now despite it being rather long. Everything is very interesting. I had no idea how prevalent raisins are or how naturally they are made. After three weeks of drying in the sun, it only takes 10 minutes to get them into the factory and then into a box. This is a good book for all those people who want kids to know where their food comes from.
I will say, I’m not personally overly fond of the illustrations. Some of them are great, but others feel like they fall a little flat. Some pages don’t have a full illustration, but one or two smaller pictures to illustrate one or two questions and answers. The white space around those doesn’t feel intentional. It feels almost lazy. There is also some funny formatting with where the questions and answer paragraphs are placed on the page that can make it a little difficult to follow the text properly. And I really don’t like the font they used for the title and questions, but that’s totally a personal preference.
The book is probably best suited to classrooms and library collections, unless your family is really into food and how it’s made (or if you love the SunMaid factory like we do!). There’s a lot of science and history here so it’s a book you could use in a number of different units of study, such as food science, nutrition, and farm-to-fork.