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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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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Women of Steel and Stone by Anna Lewis

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

Women of Steel

Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers by Anna M. Lewis

Women of Steel and Stone is a really good introduction to women in fields that are traditionally dominated by men. The mix of engineers, architects and landscape architects was really interesting and there was a lot of additional information beyond the 22 main women about other women and about the fields themselves.

There is still such a stigma of women in math and science fields so it’s really important that we give young girls examples of women who have gone into these fields. And these women are an impressive set of examples! Here, though, is where my professional opinion of the book (kids will like this!) and my personal opinion (it wasn’t the best fit) diverge.

As far as the intended age, it’s definitely a book for older readers based on length and difficulty of text. However, it’s really wonderful because each profile is a fairly short, quick read. I could see kids in middle and high school picking this up and putting it down as they have the time to read about the women. Books like that are so important for all these busy kids.

The women and their lives were really interesting and I can see kids connecting with the subjects. I, personally, wanted way more information and would have preferred that the author chose fewer profiles so she could focus more. But  I really think that is coming from someone who is interested in how women have broken into male-dominated fields and someone who wanted to see more of how they balanced their personal (marriage and motherhood) lives with their professional lives that appeared to be very demanding. Will kids want to know all about that? Highly unlikely. I think for kids the book will pique their interest in the fields of architecture, engineering, and landscape design and in the women themselves. They might seek out more information beyond this book.

Lewis was really good about including a section at the end of each profile that gave the reader places to go to find more information. And it’s quite the mix of resources. Within the chapters there were boxes that added little bits about other women who had impacts, but didn’t get entire profiles. I found their placement (in the middle of paragraphs) very distracting and found myself skipping them. I think a side bar would have been better or even a chapter at the end of each section that had these brief asides aggregated. I know that’s a design, not author issue, but that kind of stuff drives me nuts and if I am skipping it then kids probably will too.

My only other complaint is that I wanted a lot more pictures. There weren’t very many (I’m guessing for space?) and the ones that are there have terrible captions that offer little to no information about how they link up with the women’s careers, with their profession, or why they are important. Often buildings were talked about in the text, but there were no pictures to accompany it. Nonfiction for kids has to be engaging and it has to have more pictures than adult nonfiction. Kids are likely not to go out of their way to find pictures of the buildings and structures these women have created. Pictures give an entry point for younger readers into the book and the topic.

The exclusion of women from these professions early on will really appeal to kids’ sense of justice and I think it will hit home how far women have come and how far they need to go. Lewis includes a range of women from the early years of the professions to much more recent and contemporary women (both in terms of design and age). Many of the women she profiles are still alive and some are still working. By including this range you can really see how the professions have developed both in broad terms and in terms of including women and taking them seriously.

The introductions to each section were very interesting. Lewis details the history of the profession (most of them were not formalized until the late 1800s) and what it takes to get a degree or certification in each profession. She also includes lists of colleges that have highly regarded undergraduate and graduate degree programs. All in all a great book to dip in and out of and to whet the appetite of budding architects and engineers.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Non-Fiction Review: Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac

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


From GoodReads: Young Sacajawea has been asked to join Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the American West. As a translator, peacemaker, caretaker, and guide, Sacajawea alone will make the historic journey of Lewis and Clark possible. This captivating novel, which is told in alternating points of view — by Sacajawea herself and by William Clark — provides an intimate glimpse into what it would have been like to witness firsthand this fascinating time in our history.

Lexile: 840L

I’m fudging a little here as this is a fictionalized account of Sacajawea and her part in the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, Bruchac did extensive research and drew very heavily on journals of the expedition as well as consulting Native sources, including modern relatives of Sacajawea. So I’m going to count it.

I feel very foolish reading this book. I knew next to nothing about the Lewis and Clark expedition and even less about Sacajawea. She was captured around 12 years old and taken captive with a tribe who lived further east of her Shoshone tribe. After a few years Charbonneau purchased her and another woman she was captured with. (I was always kind of curious how she met and married Charbonneau.) While she was pregnant with her son, Jean Baptiste, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived and Charbonneau was signed on as was Sacajawea who would help as a guide and interpreter. After Jean Baptiste was born and the spring arrived the party set off for the West Coast.

While I wouldn’t call the book action packed, which is due in part to the way the story is told, it’s an incredibly interesting look at the expedition. It’s packed with facts and information and because of Bruchac’s skill with storytelling the history really comes to life. It was a hard journey, and while they were often incredibly lucky (only one person died on whole expedition), there were a lot of challenges and lean times. It’s absolutely amazing to think Sacajawea was 16 or 17 years old and a brand new mother when she took this trip. Her strength and her age make her a very interesting character, one I think kids will enjoy hearing her voice brought to life.

I found the parts about the language barriers and translation particularly fascinating. Because the group encounters so many tribes they needed people who spoke different languages. They would pick people up along the way who could help and sometimes they encountered French trappers who spoke local languages. However, they were often translating from English into French into Shoshone (or Numi, which is what Sacajawea spoke) or Mandan into another language. Talk about complicated! Otherwise they would use some kind of universal sign language.

As the expedition goes through the land they encounter a lot of different native groups. A lot. There are a ton of names and Clark uses different names from Sacajawea. This gets a little confusing and I would keep it in mind if you are reading this with or to younger audiences that might be pushing the reading level. I found this awesome map of the tribal nations that a Cherokee map maker created. It has the tribe name in the area where they lived (pre-European contact) and lists both names given to them by Europeans and what they called themselves (this is incredibly helpful in keeping the tribes straight between Sacajawea’s and Clark’s narrations). Here is the link to the NPR article that tells the story of how and why the map was created.

Heads up, Merriwether Lewis meets an unfortunate end at his own hand and it’s mentioned how he commits suicide. If you’re reading this aloud you might skip over that bit. If you’re having your class read this or are handing it to students, just be aware that it’s in there. It isn’t graphic, but it’s sad and in there.

I had a couple complaints about the book that are very minor. As the story switches between Sacajawea and Clark they address the person they are telling the story to- Jean Baptiste, Sacajawea’s son. I found it pulled me out of the story a bit to have them asking and answering imagined questions from the boy, but it wasn’t a big deal. I also don’t like the cover on this. It screams required reading to me although it gets major points for having a person of color on it. It also feels young when the text is really geared higher. Also each chapter has either a folktale or excerpt from an expedition diary. These were awesome inclusions and did a lot to elucidate the story as well as show how Bruchac wove the fact into the fiction. But! The font for the diaries was so hard to read and if I struggled with it I can only imagine that kids are going to skip them entirely.

Definitely worth a read for kids who are interested in the expedition, this time period, or native voices. It is certainly well worth looking at including in curriculum because of Sacajawea’s perspective. Plus it really brings this important and fascinating exploration to life.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

On 22, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Port Chicago 50From GoodReads: On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution. This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America’s armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.

This was the first book by Steve Sheinkin I’ve read and I picked this particular one up because he talked about creating it at his keynote at the ALSC Institute. This is how middle grade nonfiction should be. It was such an interesting story made more approachable by Sheinkin’s storytelling. The book read a lot more like a novel than a dry, factual recounting of events. Which isn’t to say he embellished the story, just that he relayed it in a way that felt organic like a story. I think that probably says a lot about the state of most nonfiction.

I don’t usually use quotes, but I think the following line from the book illustrates so well why kids will click with this book and this story and why they connect with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “The whole trial gave Albert Williams the unsettling feeling of being a kid and being accused by an adult of something he hadn’t done.” Kids are finely attuned to injustice. They despise it because it is one of those things that makes childhood and adolescence so difficult. They live it every day- “because I said so”, “do it this way”, etc. They are told by their parents and teachers how to think, how to behave, how to feel and how to be even, when it isn’t their truth. To see this happening to others, kids connect with that and feel the injustice personally.

Add to this an interesting and rather scandalous story and Sheinkin’s skilled storytelling and I think this book will have appeal for kids who have learned about the Civil Rights Movement and kids who love nonfiction. I think you could even hand sell it to kids who don’t normally read nonfiction, but are interested in history. The writing is certainly engaging enough.

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