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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: How Do You Raise a Raisin?

On 21, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RaisinHow Do You Raise a Raisin? written by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Craig Brown

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.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis

On 15, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

HarlemHarlem Hellfighters written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley

From GoodReads: They went by many names, but the world came to know them best as the Harlem Hellfighters. Two thousand strong, these black Americans from New York picked up brass instruments—under the leadership of famed bandleader and lieutenant James Reese Europe—to take the musical sound of Harlem into the heart of war. From the creators of the 2012Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor Book, And the Soldiers Sang, this remarkable narrative nonfiction rendering of WWI — and American — history uses free-verse poetry and captivating art to tell century-old story of hellish combat, racist times, rare courage, and inspired music.

Told with incredible illustrations and spare chunks of text, Harlem Hellfighters is not just a story of WWI, but a story of race relations during that era. The small pieces of the story help pack an emotional punch but also shield young readers from the true horrors of WWI.

The 369th, an all black unit, was assembled and sent to France. The men hoped they would be fighting on the front lines, but that evaded them for a long time because of their race. Instead they found themselves doing grunt work far behind the fighting. Under the direction of James Reese Europe, ninety of the men played a fusion jazz that inspired and excited many soldiers and civilians.

Eventually they were sent to the front where they fought admirably and tenaciously. They earned the German nickname Harlem Hellfighters. Many of the men were killed and wounded, but many earned medals of honor, including Henry Johnson who earned a Croix de Guerre, the first American to do so.

The color palette of the illustrations is wonderful. Dark grays, black, blues, browns and purples give them a cold and gritty atmosphere. The text is lyrical and poetic which also contributes to the atmosphere of the book.

This is definitely a worthwhile picture book. A picture book that shows they aren’t just for preschoolers. The language is complex, beautiful and evocative. Although it’s not packed with facts, it will definitely spark interest in race relation, WWI, and jazz. And would be an excellent book to read together, either as a class or family, to process the events. There’s a lot to think about here.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Children of the Midnight Sun by Tricia Brown

On 08, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Midnight SunChildren of the Midnight Sun: Young Native Voices of Alaska by Tricia Brown, photographs by Ray Corral

A series of profiles of eight native Alaskan children. Profiles feature pictures of the kids in their everyday lives and often in native dress.  

I looked this one up first on Debbie Reese’s AICL blog and she doesn’t appear to have a review. However she mentions another book that recommends it with reservations.

From my own reading of it I thought it was an interesting book. I love that they were little slices of life and it talked a lot about how many of these kids are trying to recapture their cultures that were forcibly taken from them. The essays don’t go into detail about it, but many of them do mention it.

It does use the word Eskimo which I thought was something you weren’t supposed to do, so I found that a little confusing. The pictures are a bit dated as well and I couldn’t help but wonder how different life might be today with Internet access and more technology.

I also wondered how these children, who would now be in their twenties, are passing their cultures on to their children and if they’ve kept up with their desire to keep their cultures alive.

What surprised me most was that while reading it at bedtime to myself, my four year old daughter was captivated by it. She asked what it was about and, not wanting to engage her too much, I said it was a book about children who lived very far up north in Alaska. Instead of putting her off she became very curious and kept asking questions about the children. Where did they live? Did they live in houses that far North? What kind of clothes did they wear? What did they eat? I explained to her that they were native people and that they had a culture and celebrations and languages that were different than ours, but that were like our German culture and celebrations. I finally had to promise to read some of the profiles to her the next day.

I know there may be reservations about the book and how it portrays and handles native culture, but the book piqued my daughter’s interest. Not only can it be exposure to these tribes and children, but it can be a jumping off point for learning more and for discussions about why these children are needing to bring their native cultures back. I suspect this would be a good book to add to a collection that features other strong books about native Alaskan cultures.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review Mania

On 10, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

For the summer reading lists I was trying to get some newer, more diverse titles into the suggested titles sections. None of the previous titles were bad, they were just older lists. There was almost no poetry on the lists and I wanted to expose the kids to some good titles in that genre. I also wanted to show parents of older kids (third and fourth grade) that it’s okay for their kids to still read picture books. Many picture books are actually harder to read than chapter books. Plus they’re beautiful. Why turn kids off to them? This post is considerably shorter than the chapter book review mania. Many of the picture books I added are ones I have already reviewed, but I wanted to get a few thoughts down about the following titles.

OrangutankaOrangutanka: A Story in Poems written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renee Kurilla

From GoodReads: All the orangutans are ready for a nap in the sleepy depths of the afternoon . . . all except one. This little orangutan wants to dance! A hip-hop, cha-cha-cha dance full of somersaults and cartwheels. But who will dance with her? Written in bold poems in the tanka style, an ancient Japanese form of poetry that is often used as a travel diary, this exuberant orangutan celebration from acclaimed poet Margarita Engle will make readers want to dance, too!

The illustrations in this book are gorgeous and adorable. The story is cute, but the book really shines in that it encourages kids to write their own tanka poems and do their own orangudance. Engle has included some really interesting information in the back of the book too.

This would be the perfect book for kids who love animals, particularly apes and monkeys. In the classroom it would be a great book for units on conservation, environment, habit and habit destruction, Southeast Asia, and poetry.

Don’t be fooled by the word count, it’s amazing what Engle can convey through a few short poems. You get a sense of where the orangutans live, how they live and see the adventure the older sister has with some children visiting the wildlife preserve.

I put this on the third grade list, but it could have gone on any of the younger lists and really even onto the fourth grade list. A third grader could handle the text on their own I think, but it would make an excellent read aloud and I suspect there are animal lovers in fourth grade that would adore the pictures and poems.

Shining StarShining Star: The Anna May Wong Story written by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang

From GoodReads: Born in 1905, Anna May Wong spent her childhood working in her family’s laundry in Los Angeles s Chinatown. Whenever she could afford it, Anna May slipped off to the movies, escaping to a world of adventure, glamour, and excitement. After seeing a movie being filmed in her neighborhood, young Anna May was hooked. She decided she would become a movie star!
Anna May struggled to pursue an acting career in Hollywood in the 1930s. There were very few roles for Asian Americans, and many were demeaning and stereotypical. Anna May made the most of each limited part. She worked hard and always gave her best performance. Finally, after years of unfulfilling roles, Anna May began crusading for more meaningful roles for herself and other Asian American actors.

This was an incredible story. I had no idea who Anna May Wong was although I knew there was discrimination and racism in early Hollywood (and there probably still is). Wong is an interesting figure. She dreamed of being an actress and despite her parents objections she made that dream happen for herself. Thankfully her parents eventually supported her, with her father driving her to auditions even though he didn’t understand her desire. Wong went on to see the racism in Hollywood and want to change it. She was in lots of films and her early films often had her playing a stereotypical Chinese woman (either a shrinking violet or a tiger lady). When she began to have more clout and when she began to realize the impact she had as a role model she decided to fight against these stereotypical portrayals.

I put this on our second grade list because they study a few Asian cultures in the second grade curriculum (primarily Vietnamese and Japanese). The book is actually much closer to a fourth or fifth grade reading level (maybe higher?). It’s long, but it’s really interesting and we encourage our families to read aloud with their students all the way through lower school. I also chose the book because it’s a California story. Anna May was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and her father lived and worked right here in Sacramento. There’s nothing like a good story that hits close to home.

Harvesting HopeHarvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez written by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

From GoodReads: Cesar Chavez is known as one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. When he led a 340-mile peaceful protest march through California, he ignited a cause and improved the lives of thousands of migrant farmworkers. But Cesar wasn’t always a leader. As a boy, he was shy and teased at school. His family slaved in the fields for barely enough money to survive.
Cesar knew things had to change, and he thought that–maybe–he could help change them. So he took charge. He spoke up. And an entire country listened.

I am embarrassed to admit I knew virtually nothing about Cesar Chavez despite living in the capital of California. Harvesting Hope was a lot longer and more detailed about Chavez than I expected, but that was fantastic. There was a lot of information about his formative years and his beginnings as an activist. The book never read like a dry nonfiction, though. The story was incredibly engaging.

Morales pictures really add to the book too. The warm inviting colors give a sense of the happiness Chavez felt growing up on his family farm. They also really bring his march to Sacramento to life and are just plain beautiful.

As a read aloud it would work for much younger audiences (down into first grade), but tackling it on their own a child would need to be older. It touches on issues of racism and discrimination so be prepared for conversations about those topics. It’s length really does make it better suited to second or third grade and up. Excellent picture book biography.

Emmanuel's DreamEmmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah written by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls

From GoodReads: This inspirational picture book biography, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, tells the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who bicycled across Ghana–nearly 400 miles–with only one leg. With that achievement he forever changed how his country treats people with disabilities, and he shows us all that one person is enough to change the world.

I liked the message in this book and obviously the story is incredibly inspiring. It is not a detailed picture book biography, but a telling of the story of how Emmanuel came to ride around Ghana and fight for the rights of disabled people in his country. I think this makes it the perfect type of biography for younger kids and for whetting kids appetite for books about activists and/or to get the interested in these types of causes.

I think it’s both important to help children see that people live differently around the world and to encourage them to want to help. I also think the book does a great job showing that you shouldn’t let society’s perception of you hold you back if there is something you want to accomplish, and that’s an excellent thing for kids to hear.



Poems to DreamPoems to Dream Together/ Poems Para Sonar Juntos written by Francisco X. Alarcon, illustrated by Paula Barragan

From GoodReads: A bilingual collection of poetry by acclaimed Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcon celebrating family, community, nature, and the positive power of dreams to shape our future.

This is a beautiful collection of poems about dreams from Alarcon (who visited our school a number of years ago!). The poems are all fairly short, but they really lend themselves to discussing the craft of poetry. There is a fair amount of word play and a need to understand that dreams and dreaming can mean a lot of different things to different people.

I think this is a great book for exposing children to beautiful poetry, but I really think it would make a great read and discuss book for parents and children or for a class. The book also clearly shares some of Alaracon’s experiences growing up and talks about his family which makes for more interesting discussion about how he has shared these memories as poems instead of short stories or picture books.

The dual language format makes the book accessible to a lot more kids and families (hopefully). Our students take a foreign language in lower school so I included it on the list for anyone who may also be interested in hearing the language they are learning and for kids who might be able to identify a word here or there.

Beautiful BirdsBeautiful Birds written by Jean Roussen, illustrated by Emmanuelle Walker

From GoodReads: In this stunningly illustrated introduction to the world’s most beautiful birds, Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker pay homage to an alphabet of birds in all their feathery fancies. From Warblers to Blue-tits and Kakapos to Owls, Roussen’s playful, melodic poem is complemented beautifully by Walker’s delicate illustrations.

Beautiful Birds is incredibly illustrated. The colors alone practically glow on the page (this picture doesn’t do it justice). The birds are so sculptural and really reminiscent of Charley Harper. The text is clever and draws some really interesting connections as well as introduces some unusual, but beautiful, birds.

I put this on our first grade list because it is a concept alphabet book and they study birds in the spring. However I first got the book for my own daughter who was so taken with it we had to buy our own copy which we have read again and again. There is a very interesting twist/reveal at the very end of the book where you realize there is an actual narrator. My daughter finds this twist riotously funny and laughs every time.

A great book for bird lovers. Also, don’t miss the end papers where the eggs inside the front cover hatch into these darling little fluff balls inside the back cover.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone

On 12, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Almost AstronautsAlmost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

From GoodReads: What does it take to be an astronaut? Excellence at flying, courage, intelligence, resistance to stress, top physical shape — any checklist would include these. But when America created NASA in 1958, there was another unspoken rule: you had to be a man. Here is the tale of thirteen women who proved that they were not only as tough as the toughest man but also brave enough to challenge the government. They were blocked by prejudice, jealousy, and the scrawled note of one of the most powerful men in Washington. But even though the Mercury 13 women did not make it into space, they did not lose, for their example empowered young women to take their place in the sky, piloting jets and commanding space capsules. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is the story of thirteen true pioneers of the space age.

A few years ago PBS ran a really good series called When We Left Earth about the US space program. It was very well done and incredibly interesting, but if you were left wondering where all the women were, here is your answer. Like When We Left Earth, Almost Astronauts was so interesting. These impressive female pilots underwent most of the testing that the male astronauts who actually got to go into space did. And they did better than the men. In fact the majority of people who worked with them thought they would be excellent candidates for the space program. But these women had an uphill battle. They were up against a wall of sexism that wanted to keep them in the home and keep them from making waves. There were undertones of racism, too. People worried that letting women into the space program would set a precedent that would force them to allow in minorities and so they didn’t want to open that door.

This is certainly nonfiction, but Stone does some leading and hinting that makes it sound like she has inserted some opinion. I’m not saying she’s wrong, but sometimes she sounds like she’s placing a lot of blame on NASA when sexism and misogyny were endemic to US culture. Women had uphill battles in all sorts of fields and really just getting into the workforce. Stone mentions on numerous occasions that women in the 1960s were not allowed to rent a car or get a loan without a man’s signature.

There are some really terrible revelations in the book and you won’t look at the space program the same way again. It took NASA until 1978 to admit women into the program and it wasn’t until 1983, when Sally Ride went up in Challenger, that women in the US were sent into space. (Russia sent their first woman up in 1963, TWENTY years earlier.) Several of the original astronauts (including some big names) were against allowing women into the space program. John Glenn and Scott Carpenter both testified against allowing women into the space program in a Congressional hearing on the matter. Glenn even made several jokes in poor taste and questioned their abilities. I would like to mention that Jerrie Cobb, the woman who underwent all the same testing as Glenn and surpassed him, had logged more 2,000 more flight hours than Glenn as well.

Not only are these women excellent role models for our girls (and boys!) they are a good reminder of how hard women fought for us so we could enjoy the relative equality we do today. There has been a lot of talk about the pay gap between men and women lately, but I think it’s important not to forget how far we have come. Certainly this book can have a wide audience. Space exploration and history is always a popular topic. But I think anyone interested in those topics should read this. It helps give a much more complete picture of that history.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell

On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

JosephineJosephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

From GoodReads: In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine’s powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.

Josephine is the perfect example of what picture book biographies should be. For starters it really includes good information about her. After finishing it I felt like I had a good sense of the events in her life as well as who she was. Sure, this isn’t the definitive biography, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a student use it in a report. Plus it was meaty enough without feeling like you’re reading something for a report.

The book needs to be taken as a whole package. Every element works so well together. The story of her life is broken out into chapters which are introduced with a two page spread of a curtain rising on a new set. Perfect for the stage-loving Josephine. Every so often there is a two page spread that is just a colored background with text on it. This is particularly effective for getting information across without feeling like a dry page of text. The writing is also very lyrical making it incredibly readable.

Robinson’s illustrations are beautifully stylized and Josephine is always recognizable by her large, elongated eyes. The bold solid colored backgrounds make the modern, graphical figures pop off the page. The illustrations feel old and new at the same time, like something from the sixties but with fresh, bright colors.

And Josephine was such an amazing person. She is a true rags to riches story, but she also worked tirelessly to fight against segregation and the prevailing attitude in the US at the time that blacks were inferior to whites. She practiced what she preached too, insisting that audiences be mixed and adopting 12 children all of different ethnicities. She’s just an interesting person to read about. Flashy and energetic, quirky and confident Josephine’s life was anything but average.

I haven’t seen such a good use of typeface in a picture book in a long time (ever?). The author pulls out words and makes them all caps emphasizing them. But they aren’t random words. They’re words with significance for the scene, the story, and for discovering who Josephine was. There are also quotes from Josephine throughout the text and these are printed in an entirely different (and fancier) font that is much larger. I think that emphasizes Josephine’s larger-than-life presence as well as making it clear they are her words. Other books have attempted mixed fonts and it just ends up looking like a sloppy ransom note. Not here. This looks polished, intentional, and adds to the story.

My one regret about the book is that there wasn’t any information about what happened to her children and her siblings. I’m a nosy person and I like to know about anyone mentioned in the text. But the book isn’t about her family. It’s about her and it does a fantastic job of sharing that story and sharing who she was. As I said, I would recommend this to kids writing biography reports. It’s fairly long so it would be better for upper elementary, but there isn’t any reason a middle schooler couldn’t pick this up and read it either for pleasure or for research. It’s a slightly smaller format than a normal picture book making it a little more appealing to older kids who might not want the stigma of reading a book with pictures. Highly recommended!

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins

On 17, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Animal BookThe Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest- and Most Surprising – Animals on Earth written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins

From GoodReads: Animals smooth and spiky, fast and slow, hop and waddle through the two hundred plus pages of the Caldecott Honor artist Steve Jenkins’s most impressive nonfiction offering yet. Sections such as “Animal Senses,” “Animal Extremes,” and “The Story of Life” burst with fascinating facts and infographics that will have trivia buffs breathlessly asking, “Do you know a termite queen can produce up to 30,000 eggs a day?” Jenkins’s color-rich cut- and torn-paper artwork is as strikingly vivid as ever.

Animal books certainly aren’t hard to come by in the children’s section, but none of them have quite the interest of charm of this book. I was introduced to Jenkins style through Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World and was totally sold. I actually thought this would be a shorter book (not sure why) but when it showed up at the library it was certainly not. I would say the length alone makes it better suited to upper elementary and middle school animal and science lovers, but (but!) my three and a half year old asked to read it. And we’ve been reading it a few pages at a time for a couple weeks now and she hasn’t lost interest.

I think the combination of AMAZING cut paper illustrations and really interesting facts make this book good for a range of ages. While a sixth grader may be able to sit down and devour this in a sitting or two my daughter needs a lot longer to take it in and digest it. Even as an adult I am amazed by the information in it.

The book is laid out around several broader topics (like animal senses) that include an introductory page that defines the topic and talks generally about it. Then it delves into pages of facts about individual animals. Each two page spread will center loosely around a subtopic (like sight within animal senses). This makes the book feel cohesive and less scattered than other books of facts.There is plenty of white space around the illustrations and text making it less visually distracting (and therefore better for younger readers) than say the Eyewitness series of books (which I love, but had a hard time reading as a kid because of the busyness). Some of the information can be found in Jenkins other books, but this never feels like recycled material.

The end of the book includes a section on how he makes his illustrations. This sparked a lot of discussion with my daughter who was fascinated by the idea that the pictures were all made of paper. There is also a section on the process of making a book from idea to research to writing to illustrating to printing to distribution.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Wangari Maathai written by Franck Prevot

On 16, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Wangari MaathaiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees written by Franck Prevot, illustrated by Aurelia Fronty

From GoodReads: Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to lead women in a nonviolent struggle to bring peace and democracy to Africa through its reforestation. Her organization planted over thirty million trees in thirty years. This beautiful picture book tells the story of an amazing woman and an inspiring idea.

I originally picked this one up because of the art. It’s so lush and vibrant. It has this very modern vibe to it too, with the elongated eyes and tiny ink details on leaves, people, and textiles. Particularly striking about the two page illustration spreads are the background colors. They range from deep blues to pink to red to the yellow-green seen on the cover. It really makes even the more stripped down illustrations pop. They do a wonderful job of setting the tone of each page and passage. The pictures really draw you into the story.

I had not heard of Wangari Maathai before reading this (even grown ups can learn from picture books!), but her story is incredibly inspiring. I think it really stresses the importance of a good education, something Maathai was incredibly lucky to get. Her education exposed her to a wider world and it also inspired her to do something about the destruction of trees and the environment. Her story also shows that one person, if they use their wits, intelligence and determination plus a lot of elbow grease, can change the world. Maathai didn’t do it all on her own, but she was the flash point and she started the Green Belt Movement when she couldn’t get the government to support her or move quickly enough.

I really like the picture book biography trend. I don’t actually know if there are more being published, but I’ve certainly noticed and read a lot of them lately. They’re great for the third-fourth grade range and even really up into fifth. They can be so engaging in the way a dry chapter book is not, especially if they are well illustrated. I would encourage their use in biography projects in school because they contain good information and also because it will encourage students to use more than one resource in their reports. I’m tired of projects where kids are handed one book and write their entire report from that book. It hits a little too close to plagiarism and it isn’t exactly reflective of the real research process. And if single book research is done for the sake of time I think the project is about the product and not the learning process it should be providing (sorry for the tangential rant!) and that’s a problem too.

Head’s up, this book has a very high reading level. It’s somewhere around the sixth grade, so a younger reader might struggle to get through this on their own. Which isn’t, of course, to say a younger reader wouldn’t be interested. Just that if you push it below third grade or so it should be a read aloud with lots of discussion.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: To Dance by Siena Siegel

On 14, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

To DanceTo Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel written by Siena Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel

From GoodReads: Dancers are young when they first dream of dance. Siena was six — and her dreams kept skipping and leaping, circling and spinning, from airy runs along a beach near her home in Puerto Rico, to dance class in Boston, to her debut performance on stage with the New York City Ballet.

This is a pretty straight forward graphic novel of Siena’s early life as a dancer. While not nearly as in-depth a look at life as a ballerina, especially a young one, as Michaela DePrince’s Taking Flight, it’s perfect for young dancers interested in what it takes to dance.

Dance for Siena filled a space in her life. She talks about how she felt compelled to dance and I think this draw and this longing will really appeal to kids interested in ballet, or really any kind of dance. Siena is also Puerto Rican and she worries about her body developing into a curvy woman’s body (the picture of her staring at her relatives large breasts is hilarious). I thought this was an interesting flip of the normal tween girl mentality. Usually they stare longingly at relatives breasts wishing they could have their own pair. She doesn’t get much into how being Puerto Rican might have hindered her or made her feel like an outsider, but that was fine. Just the simple fact that she is not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballerina made her story more inspiring.

Siena’s story is also important and inspiring because ,while she did preprofessional ballet for years, she quit at 18 due to an injury. Instead of dancing into the sunset she made a major change and went to college. However, she took up dance again a few years later simply as a hobby because she still felt she needed it. I think this was refreshing because many girls will not make it as professional ballet dancers and this doesn’t preclude keeping up with dance and having a life beyond it. That isn’t to say young dancers shouldn’t dream, but I think it’s good for them to see that professional dance doesn’t have to be the endgame.

As an adult reading this To Dance really hits home how expensive ballet is as a hobby. Siena’s family had to come to New York many times for camps and classes and ultimately she and her mother moved there so she could be close to the ballet school. That isn’t to mention the cost of tuition, costumes, and the special school she had to attend to get an education and be able to dance pre-professionally.

Just one last thought, especially arresting are the endpapers first with her dancing as a child on the beach then as mother dancing on the beach with a baby in her arms with husband in tow. A great book for aspiring dancers in elementary school.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song

On 23, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Words to My Life's SongAshley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song by Ashley Bryan, photographs by Bill McGuinness

From GoodReads: Ashley’s autobiography is full of art, photographs, and the poignant never-say-never tale of his rich life, a life that has always included drawing and painting. Even as a boy growing up during the Depression, he painted — finding cast off objects to turn into books and kites and toy and art. Even as a solder in the segregated Army on the beaches of Normandy, he sketched — keeping charcoal crayons and paper in his gasmask to draw with during lulls. Even as a talented, visionary art student who was accepted and then turned away from college upon arrival, the school telling Ashley that to give a scholarship to an African American student would be a waste, he painted — continuing to create art when he could have been discouraged, continuing to polish his talents when his spirit should have been beaten. Ashley went on to become a Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee, a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer, and a multiple Coretta Scott King award winner.

Another winner of a book from Ashley Bryan. I liked this so much I ordered my own copy. Bryan grew up during the Depression Era, but his family was happy and seemed to make the most of their circumstances. His parents, born in Antigua on the island of St. John, immigrated to Brooklyn and lived in a small apartment with their six kids and three orphaned nieces and nephews. The way Bryan describes his home and his parents is almost magical. His mother sang from morning until night. His parents encouraged Ashley’s artistry and all their kids. They were able to take free WPA music and art classes. His mother also grew plants where ever there was light in their apartment and made paper flowers to brighten darker spaces. Who wouldn’t want to grow up there and who wouldn’t find inspiration in that? When Bryan was older his parents bought the house across the street from their apartment building and made a home there.

When Bryan was 19 he was drafted into the army during WWII. Because he was black he was stuck doing service work, but was present at the D-Day invasion on a supply boat. After traveling to Scotland, England, and then France, Bryan returned to the US, but was haunted by questions of war. He decided, after a summer art scholarship, to study philosophy and got an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (I have to note biographies of this time period make it seem that it was considerably easier to get an education back then, especially a college education). After that he decided to use the GI bill to continue his education and went to France where he painted and studied French. He was even able to see Pablo Casals in concert! Bryan also got a Fulbright scholarship and studied in Germany.

Bryan did not set out to be a children’s book author/illustrator. He was a practicing artist and taught at the college level. He was approached by Pantheon books, who ultimately did not use his work, and then later by Atheneum. He has published a ton of books since then!

The interesting thing about the layout/format of Words is that it could have gone very wrong. It’s chock full of pictures of his drawings and paintings over the year, photographs of Bryan as a child and young man, pictures of his letters and photos of the places he grew up, as well as pictures of the Cranberry Isles where he lives now and his studio there. There is also the story of his life, his autobiography, and a parallel story of him inviting the reader along to see his island home and how he draws inspiration from it. The three pieces, pictures and two stories, could have felt jumbled, disjointed, and incongruous, but nothing interrupts anything else. It all flows so beautifully together and is so inspiring and lovely. At the end you feel as though you have spent a relaxing day chatting with an amazing artist who has led a full and interesting life.

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