By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl, knows better than to cross Bok Chitto, but one day—in search of blackberries—she disobeys her mother and finds herself on the other side. A tall slave discovers Martha Tom. A friendship begins between Martha Tom and the slave’s family, most particularly his young son, Little Mo. Soon afterwards, Little Mo’s mother finds out that she is going to be sold. The situation seems hopeless, except that Martha Tom teaches Little Mo’s family how to walk on water to their freedom.
The story of friendship here between Martha Tom and Little Mo is really sweet, but the addition of the beautiful illustrations really bring the story to life. Bridges does an excellent job creating suspense and atmosphere to make the story jump off the page.
This is a Tingle book that I don’t have any mixed feelings about. While I think Crossing Bok Chitto makes a great story of friendship, history, and kindness for any picture book reader I think it would make an excellent classroom read aloud. There are a lot of Underground Railroad/slave escape books out there, many of which are excellent, but this one is particularly good because of the inclusion of the Choctaw community. In my experience the books about people helping runaway slaves tend to be white, which can lean toward the white savior complex. Here we see others helping runaway slaves. There’s a lot to the story that could stimulate good discussion. Also, importantly the book is written by a Choctaw author and is illustrated by a native artist.
My only regret about the book is that Little Mo and Martha Tom won’t get to see one another again.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Zulay and her three best friends are all in the same first grade class and study the same things, even though Zulay is blind. When their teacher asks her students what activity they want to do on Field Day, Zulay surprises everyone when she says she wants to run a race. With the help of a special aide and the support of her friends, Zulay does just that.
This would make an excellent book for the classroom or library to be read aloud. The title is a bit misleading since the story doesn’t really focus around her friends or their frienship. It’s really a story about practice makes perfect. Zulay really wants to run in the foot race on Field Day, but she’s blind and not familiar with the track. She’s been working with Miss XX on how to move around on her own using a cane, but running in a foot race poses a new challenge. With the help of her aide and a lot of practice (and she isn’t the only student to practice, many of her sighted classmates practice too) she is able to complete the race with her friends cheering her on.
Some pieces of the story, although good, felt disjointed. She talks about her friends and how they help each other but beyond cheering for one another on Field Day and linking arms to help Zulay move around the playground you don’t see much beyond that. I would have liked more of their friendship. There were the lessons with Miss XX on how to use a cane for feeling her way on the street and around unfamiliar places. Zulay is frustrated by them and feels a little embarrassed that she is the only one using a cane. But she doesn’t end up using the cane in her foot race (understandably) or at any other time in the story. I guess my point is, I liked Zulay enough that I want to see more of her and learn more about her.
The illustrations are darling. I love Brantley-Newton’s style. Zulay and her friends in their uniforms are adorable. And Zulay is reminicent of the adorable kids in the One Love, also illustrated by Brantley-Newton.
This is definitely worth having in the library collection because the story has a great message and it features Zulay who is blind. I also think it would make an excellent addition to classroom and home collections where there could be discussion and read alouds of it. The text is a little long which make it better suited to the upper picture book age range, say second grade, but my nearly-four-year-old sat through it. The back cover features the Braille alphabet which opened an excellent discussion with my daughter and I could see this being repeated in classrooms and homes.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Home might be a house in the country, an apartment in the city, or even a shoe. Home may be on the road or the sea, in the realm of myth, or in the artist’s own studio. A meditation on the concept of home and a visual treat that invites many return visits, this loving look at the places where people live marks the picture-book debut of Carson Ellis, acclaimed illustrator of the Wildwood series and artist for the indie band the Decemberists.
This was a charming book, from the darling illustrations to the examination of all the places creatures live. It wasn’t revolutionary in it’s selection of homes, although it certainly was creative. There are no mobile homes or low income housing, but there is an apartment building and a shoe.
I don’t think the book is striving to be diverse with a capital D, although there is plenty of incidental ethnicity. It isn’t just a bunch of white children and adults frolicking through twee little houses with a few animals thrown in. The group scenes certainly feature children of all colors and even some of the adults are not white and this is why I ended up buying a copy (that and I was taken with the illustration style). The Middle Eastern scene looks like something out of Scheherazade, but I didn’t think it was offensive (correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s in keeping with the whimsical feel of the book.
Especially charming was the end where the artist, Ellis, is seen sitting at her work table. So many of the objects found surrounding her on the floor, on the table, and on the shelves can be found back in the illustrations. From a flag to a piece of cloth. This seek-and-find element really makes this a great book to pore over. My only wish was that the skep seen on the cover was inside. But that’s a beekeeper’s preference, not a genuine complaint.
To be honest, I don’t sound overly thrilled by the book, but I am. Enough that I bought my own copy. I just can’t put my finger on why I found it so charming. I think it’s the atmosphere created by the illustrations (they’re just so darn cute) paired with the sparse language that really makes you look at what a home is.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Who built the manger where Mary and Joseph found shelter? The answer is conveyed in this beautifully crafted picture book that envisions a young boy, a shepherd and carpenter both who, out of love and kindness, cleared the way for another shepherd and carpenter to be born on Christmas day.
This was actually a book I got from the library back in December to read to my daughter. I didn’t think much of it growing up, but as I got older I began to wonder why the Holy Family was so white most of the time. Sure, they were Jewish, but it’s unlikely they would have been so European-looking. We’re not a religious family, but I strongly believe you need to know biblical stories to be culturally literate so I do read nativity stories to my daughter (and Easter stories, etc.). I can’t totally get away from the traditional portrait, but I want to be sure I include different depictions in a variety of books
I also think stories that link other children to the birth of Jesus are really good for helping children, especially younger ones, make the connection to the characters in the story. The boy who tells this story, of helping build a stable and then offering it to Mary and Joseph, is exactly that kind of entree into a story that is often told in an impersonal and didactic way. Who Built the Stable also treats Jesus as a baby, not a Savior with a capital S. Again, I think kids find this sort of treatment of the story relatable as they were recently babies or because they have younger siblings.
Bryan’s illustrations in the book are also incredible. They are so reminiscent of stained glass. The lush colors pop off the page and really bring the whole story to life. And the little boy is so charming! I think, too, the style of the pictures is something a child could recreate or copy. I love to use books to inspire art and creativity in kids and I think Bryan’s art is rife with that kind of opportunity.
I highly recommend the book to parents looking for a different picture of the Holy Family. I also recommend it to families like ours who are looking to share the Christmas story without lots of overt religious themes. As far as religious families liking the book, I’m not sure. Certainly more traditional religious families may not like the lack of Savior storyline and different picture of Jesus, but it treats the story with reverence and the pictures are so beautiful it may be a moot point.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: “Sing to the sun
It will listen
And warm your words.”
In this beautiful collection of art and poetry, Ashley bryan celebrates all aspects of life–from a rainshower at the seashore to a beloved grandmother gathering fruit. Perfect for reading aloud, these joyful, heartfelt poems will touch all who read them.
In his autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley Bryan said his elementary school stressed poetry recitation. They had to memorize a poem a week and share it with their class. This practice helped focus Bryan on the sound of the spoken word. I think it also drew him to poetry as many of his books are about poets or written in poem form.
Sing to the Sun is a lovely little collection of poems perfect for reading aloud and for sharing with elementary age kids. The poems have a bit of depth, symbolism, and imagery, but are not so complex they would baffle that age group. In fact, because of this, they would probably make for a good poetry study where you can take them apart and look at them. The more I read children’s poetry the more I realize I don’t hate poetry, just contrived adult poetry that is required in high school. The poems in Sing are about a variety of topics and while not all of them are strictly for children they will appeal and be relatable to children. It’s important for children to read all types of literature (plays, poetry, fiction, nonfiction), but we need to make it good quality so they aren’t turned off by it. Choosing poetry, like Sing to the Sun, that is relatable and understandable, but also plays with language in an interesting and beautiful way is exactly what children need exposure to.
The illustrations in the book are absolutely gorgeous. They have movement to them that really brings them to life. And paired with their poems the words also come to life through the pictures. I’ve said this before with Bryan’s art, but it has a quality that makes if feel as if a child could recreate his style, despite his clear expertise with art. As with poetry, seeing art they could recreate children will want to enjoy and try their hand at it instead of being turned off by it.
If I have one complaint it was the layout and the library copy I had. The layout feels a bit dated. I think the simple poem and art that accompanies it is a good idea, simplicity will draw your eye to the picture and focus the reader on the poem, but I wonder if a child would pick the book up of their own accord. The library copy I have out is also yellowed. If the white pages and the cover were nice and bright it would seem more inviting. I also wonder if reprinting the pictures with a touch more saturation would help brighten and modernize the book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray. So do Hindus and Buddhists. Many others pray too. So begins Everyone Prays, a bright and colorful concept book celebrating the diverse ways that people pray. In a vibrant yet accessible manner, young readers are transported on a visual tour across the globe. They will discover the Native American sun dance ceremony, visit the sacred sites in Jerusalem, behold the Shinto shrines in Japan, watch Maasai dances in Kenya, see pilgrimages to the river Ganges in India, and much, much more.
I have to add a personal spin to this review, especially since I read some of the reviews on GoodReads and was surprised by the criticism. We’re a pretty a-religious family. The holidays we celebrate are tied to cultural tradition and significance rather than religion for us. That being said I don’t want my daughter to think religion isn’t okay if she’s interested and I want her to know about other faiths beyond our vaguely Christian one. I also think you need some conception of religion to really be culturally literate. So, I often seek out books that share religious stories, figures, and other religions (especially Islam since one of my closest friends is Muslim) to share with my daughter so she is exposed to the idea of religion. That is why I picked up this book.
I know this type of book, one that presents religion, can be really hit or miss. Some people on GoodReads complained that it was too didactic. I agree the book is didactic, but it’s essentially seeking to do what I am seeking to do with my daughter: expose her to religion and how it’s similar and different across faiths and cultures. Nonfiction is, at its heart, didactic. I did not get the impression here that there was a Message with a capital ‘m’, nor did it feel like there was some agenda underlying the text.
The other complaint I saw was that the text within the book was sparse and there wasn’t much information except in the back matter. This is true, but I didn’t see it as a downside. In fact, it made it the perfect book to share with my three-year-old. I love nonfiction books, but the more text heavy they become the less interested my daughter is and I think this is true for younger audiences in general.
We both liked the bright simple illustrations and I thought they complimented the text nicely. I was relieved to see that the pictures have a white field and modern feel rather than the bland, watery or cutesy illustrations that seem to plague religious picture books. It’s also refreshing to see a mix of people in a book, a mix of people that are primarily brown, not white.
So, the long and the short of it is, I think this is a great book for exposing kids to different religions to see how they are the same and how they differ. It’s probably best for the younger set 3-7ish (preschool up into first grade). Certainly older kids might be drawn in by the extra information at the back and it would make a good read aloud because it doesn’t get too bogged down with tons of information. There is a lot here to spark discussion about different religious ceremonies, traditions, and rituals and because it’s not all included in the picture book part of the book the audience can pick and choose what they are curious about. Return visits to the book would spark more questions and discussion.
Half way through the book my daughter asked if we could buy our own copy of the book once we returned the library copy and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.