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12

Apr
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Paseka: A Little Elephant Brave by Ruth James

On 12, Apr 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Paseka: A Little Elephant Brave written by Ruth James, illustrated by Kent Laforme

The book opens with Paseka (pronounced Pa-see-kah), a baby elephant , staggering around a grassland looking for her mother. She is being attacked by a pack of hyenas who bite her and frighten her. Something large and rumbling approaches and Paseka mistakes it for her mother and follows it. Luckily, it also frightens off the hyenas.

It turns out to be a jeep that is heading back to a campsite where Paseka tramples an old shed down and is tranquilized. A group of men put her into the back of the jeep and take her to a rehabilitation camp. Upon waking Paseka finds a herd of elephants where she thinks she spots her mother. The matriarch of the herd checks her out and accepts her into the group and she begins to find a place where she will be cared for. The herd eventually takes Paseka to a place where there are elephant bones and we discover her mother has been poached. Paseka comes to terms with the death of her mother and hears her mother encourage her to be brave.

The publisher contacted me about writing a review of Paseka and gave me access to a digital copy. Before I got a copy I did some research and found it was written by a white woman who has lived in Tanzania. I hoped the book would steer clear of a white savior narrative, exoticizing Tanzania and its people, and looking at it from an outsiders perspective. I think for the most part it does and Paseka does a couple things that are useful. The first is, and this was pointed out in the publicity for the book, it gives children from Tanzania, and Eastern Africa more broadly, a picture book featuring local folks, local wildlife, and local habitats. The author works with a nonprofit that provides books to children in Tanzania and Kenya (as well as other services). In terms of distributing books to children in other parts of the world, picture books written with American, Canadian and European children in mind don’t have the same cultural relevance to children elsewhere. It’s important for them to see themselves and their homelands reflected in the literature they read and Paseka does that. It also has a Kiswahili translation of the text in the back. I worry a lot about the white savior aspects of the non profit, but the book itself doesn’t feature any white folks. It’s all Tanzanian people caring for Paseka and reuniting her with other elephants. I cannot speak to how it fits with local beliefs and sensibilities either, but I hope the author knew enough to at least try to make a relevant book. I do wish publishers sought out African authors and illustrators and gave them the opportunity to write books about their lives and their countries. That’s the ideal, the gold standard.

The other thing the book does is open conversations around wildlife conservation, the importance of local people being involved in those operations, and allows educators and parents to take a hard look at who is doing the poaching and why. I’m thinking of that dentist a few years back that killed the famous lion, but also capitalism and its expansion and the expectations it breeds around access to things like ivory, etc. And also exploitation of places impoverished by colonialism. These are important conversations for us to have with our children and students.

The text is definitely on the long side and it starts out scary with a hyena attack on the baby elephant. Proceed with caution with younger audiences. That being said, I think the ending actually delves beautifully into the majesty of elephants, their intelligence and intuition. Paseka is taken to tree where bones of poached elephants lay. There she finds a skull that brings to mind a heartsong that “she had heard…every day before she came into the great wide world.” So while sad and heart wrenching at first, it ends with warmth and love.

The illustrations are soft, sparse watercolors and I love that all the elephants look different. I’m a hippie at heart who had a home birth so the illustration of Paseka in wrapped in warm-toned swirls and hearts with an umbilical cord and her mother floating on the opposite page looking on lovingly and floating in what appears to be the universe really hit me in the feels.

I definitely think if you have books like Owen and Mzee and they’re popular and/or they fit with your curriculum this is a book worth having. It will also appeal to those environmental/animal activists in your library and classrooms. But use it open up hard discussions about places like Tanzania and why they need organizations to come in and provide children with books and why they have economic needs that facilitate poaching. Also use it to talk about the beauty and resilience of these countries and their people. Talk about how they want to preserve their land and their fauna and how they help themselves do that. Don’t let this book live in isolation in your collection or classroom.

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05

Apr
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Dreaming Their Way Out by Leonard Williams

On 05, Apr 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dreaming Their Way OutDreaming Their Way Out written by Leonard Williams, illustrated by Ohana Tozato

From Goodreads: Dreaming Their Way Out is about seven orphans who are desperately yearning for a family. One night when they dreamed about escaping the orphanage something indescribable happens. They do not realize that this discovery will change their lives forever.

Dreaming Their Way Out felt like pure wish fulfillment. Seven children are in a nun-operated orphanage, Roald Dahl style. They have to do all the hard work around the house and Sister Agatha is using them to earn money. Thankfully there does not appear to be any physical violence against the children and we don’t know why the children are orphaned (so no violent or tragic stories about their parents explicitly spelled out). One night, after another tedious and unpleasant day, in a shower of silver sparkles the kids meet a group of adults with wings. They discover that these people are their guardians and they take them off to a magical dream land where they eat good food, play with animals, and fly around magnificent natural places. Now that the children know they can spend time with the grown ups who care for and about them and can visit such a spectacular world they can’t wait to get through the days and dream their way out.

I certainly see this appealing to dreamy kids with their heads in the clouds. I’ll be honest, I was a day-dreamy kid growing up and had all kinds of wild fantasies that involved wild narratives like living in the woods, living on a farm, being able to talk to animals. And each of these stories I made up in my head did not involve parents and had limited adult roles in them. I could see a kid like myself eating this story up. I could even see it inspiring kids to write their own fantastical, hopeful, warm stories.

In terms of handing this to a kid in the foster system or a kid who is up for adoption or has been adopted, I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I’m not well versed enough in the issues of foster care and adoption to say how this story aligns with the treatment they receive, any stigma there might be against them, or if this kind of narrative is harmful. I would say proceed with caution. I only recently became aware of adoption kidlit as a genre and how problematic it can be. Is this different because it’s just so winsome? Again, I don’t feel qualified to say for sure. As with all books don’t treat it like something only a child with that type of story would enjoy. All kids can benefit for books with stories different than their own.

I do really appreciate that a story with such fantastical, magical adventures features seven kids of color. This is so rare and such a gap that needs filling in kidlit.

The book was a little on the long side which would make it better suited to reading with one or two kids at a time. But that also makes it a good fit for classroom and school libraries where kids check books out and have them to either take home or read over more than one sitting. The language isn’t terribly difficult which would make it accessible to a second or third grader.

The story ends on a high note, but also with a “to be continued…”. I’ll be curious to see what other magical adventures this group of friends finds in the years to come.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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29

Mar
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: LaDonna Plays Hoops by Kimberly Gordon Biddle

On 29, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LaDonna Plays HoopsLaDonna Plays Hoops written by Kimberly A. Gordon Biddle, illustrated by Heath Gray

From Goodreads: This is an inspirational and contemporary story of a young, African-American girl who goes to visit her grandma for a family reunion. While there, she tries to become the family hoops star. She wonders if she has the skill and the will. The story presents subtle, everyday events that teach life lessons.

Two years ago LaDonna played her cousin Tyrone in basketball and lost. That loss stung and now, two years older and wiser, she wants a rematch. Or at least she thinks she does. Her dad reminds her that whether or not she wins or loses, the practice will be good for her. LaDonna is by turns confident that she’ll beat Tyrone and nervous that she won’t be able to. She’s grown in the last two years and even gone to basketball camp, but Tyrone is also bigger and has more practice under his belt. He rather rudely reminds her that he plays on a basketball league. Fortunately, LaDonna doesn’t let a scraped knee or her nerves get the best of her and she handily wins the match.

This was such a fun read with lots to love. LaDonna dresses girly with leggings, a skirt, and a lot of pink, but she loves sports. She’s all confidence and swagger on the outside, but inside she’s afraid she won’t be able to take Tyrone’s title as family hoops star. Biddle clearly has a good read on kids and I love that the text and illustrations don’t paint LaDonna as anything more than a kid. So many times we see girls who like sports represented with boy clothes and body language and an all consuming confidence. Grandma calls her a tomboy at one point, but in reality LaDonna didn’t stick out from the group of kids in the family.

I also love that her whole family is clearly waiting for this rematch to happen. They all stare when Tyrone shuffles in off the basketball court to the backyard where LaDonna is jumping rope with a gaggle of other cousins. They all scowl as Tyrone tries to call a foul on LaDonna and won’t let him get away with it. And they all cheer as Tyrone meets his match. I imagine the adults of the family talking over the phone about this rematch, wondering if it will happen, who will initiate it, and speculating on who will win. I also imagine all the kids listening in on these conversations and wondering too about it. So when it comes time for the highly anticipated game, everyone is all ears and eyes. Her cousin Veronica quickly steps up to watch LaDonna’s pet frog for her during the match.

The illustrations are bright and colorful and cute. The cartoony style lends itself perfectly to such a light and funny family story. LaDonna’s family is shown to be primarily African American, but there are a few white folks in it too. Grandma lives in a clean, suburban neighborhood and it’s good to see a middle class African American family represented in kidlit. It shouldn’t be such a rarity, but it is.

The book would be great in a sports themed storytime as well as in classrooms with sports fans. Even better, the books shows that girls can enjoy and be good at basketball and all kids will benefit from being exposed to that narrative. In terms of ages, I would say first through third grade, but the lack of both racial and sporty girl representation might push this up into fourth grade. Kindergarten ages would probably be fine, especially if you learn the song that goes along with it (see below).

One last thing to add, I happen to know the author of this book through my last library and she told me she would be reading her book at a local Barnes and Noble. I took my daughter to hear the reading and get a copy signed. Not only were there cookies, stickers, coloring sheets and pencils, but Biddle has also written a little song that her husband plays on the ukulele while the two sing it during the read aloud. It was charming to say the least. And also catchy. Looking at the picture I used in this post, it seems that you can now get copies of the song to learn. 🙂

It is also worth noting that this book is available from the publisher with a special dyslexic font. I think this is both fascinating and wonderful. The story is high interest and the font can help readers who normally struggle.

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22

Mar
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Shaky Achy Tooth by Tiara Burnett Varner

On 22, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Onyx BrothersThe Adventures of the Onyx Brothers: The Shaky Achy Tooth written by Tiara Burnett Varner, illustrated by Cynthia Tapia Greene

From Goodreads: Isaiah Onyx is the youngest brother of the three Onyx brothers.  He cannot figure out why his mouth is hurting.   In this first book of The Onyx Brothers series, the brothers use teamwork to solve the mystery of Isaiah’s achy mouth.  Come along and join the Onyx Brothers as they take you on an adventure to explore, investigate, and solve life’s everyday mysteries-all while having fun!

Do you have siblings in your library? Yes? Then you need this book. This is the first, hopefully of many, books about the Onyx brothers. It starts with some introductions by the oldest, Ijalon, who informs us that this trio of brothers is creative, smart, adventurous, and amazing (how’s that for #blackboyjoy?). Ijalon is funny and readers are going to want to turn those pages to learn about the “death defying adventures and life altering experiences” he promises (well…actually, their parents forbid those kinds of antics, but these three goofy kids are sure to come up with something fun).

In this first installment the youngest is acting funny. Ijalon chalks it up to how all little kids act until he hears that Isaiah has passed up chocolate chip cookies. Ijalon immediately jumps up to help, but Elijah, the middle brother, suggests they polish off the cookies before offering their services. See? Funny! And spot on with the sibling dynamics.

Turns our Isaiah has a loose tooth that hurts, so his brothers offer to remove it. Ijalon puts on a hazmat suit and Elijah ties a string to the door knob. He looks very excited to try out this technique. They both give poor Isaiah some wild ideas about his tooth leaving his mouth. Isaiah’s imagination runs away with him and he gets more than a little nervous. Would you let them pull your tooth? Neither does Isaiah.

Fortunately mom shows up just in time to gently remove the tooth and explain what’s really going on. After she pulls the tooth with no drama, the two older brothers exchange knowing glances, reassuring each other that they at least were right about what needed to happen, even if Isaiah wouldn’t let them take care of it.

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Realistic colored pencil style drawings of the boys and their environments grace every page. I love bright, digitally enhanced illustrations, but I am a real sucker for this type of lovingly made illustration. The expressions on the boys’ faces are priceless and they really enhance the storytelling. It’s just so beautiful. Greene has a real knack for drawing people.

The book seems long, but the text on each page is mostly spare making it good for a range of audiences, including younger kids. I was surprised when my daughter lost her first tooth at five (that’s kindergarten age!) and there are plenty more to go at nearly eight years old, so you’ll get plenty of mileage out of this book at home, in the classroom, or in the library collection.

If you want the best tooth-themed storytime around, pair this with Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO. Find a nonfiction book about good brushing habits and you’re set. Paper teeth to match the achy shaky tooth of Isaiah’s imagination would make a perfect craft to round out a fun half hour of dental-themed fun.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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15

Mar
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonficiton Review: Newton’s Law Going Through the Motions by Marlene Downing

On 15, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Newton’s Law: Going Through the Motions written by Marlene Downing, created by Bryheem Charity

From the publisher: All children are unique with different personalities and learning styles. Nadiyah is a student that struggles to understand the lesson in her classroom. Watching other students eagerly raise their hands makes her more frustrated and anxious. Nadiyah continues “going through the motions” until Maximus steps in to guide her on a fun, educational journey. The two of them discover that a hands-on approach is the antidote to Nadiyah’s style of learning. Going Through the Motions highlights the fact that different learning styles require a different approach. Nadiyah learns about Newton’s three laws of motion during her journey into the futuristic world. 

Think Magic School Bus, but for an older crowd. Nadiyah, a middle schooler, is confused in science class. They just learned Newton’s laws of motion and it feels like everyone gets it but her. A pep talk from her mother that evening seems to send Nadiyah off to an exciting dreamland where she meets Maximus, the school role model who is there to help her understand her science lessons.

Lucky for Nadiyah this dream middle school has an epic playground. It looks like an amusement park. Maximus tells her ” I know that learning something can be confusing. That’s why you need to make it as fun as you possibly can while you’re learning.” On the playground they use the soccer field, the swings, and a pond to demonstrate the principles.

I couldn’t agree more with Maximus. Not every topic is going to be riveting for every student, but learning should be fun, engaging and feel relevant to kids. By moving to a more hands on approach and in a setting outside the classroom the Laws of Motion feel a lot more engaged with every day life.

This was a great little primer on Newton’s Laws. I know they aren’t typically covered until middle school, but I would suggest that kids as young as second or third grade will easily grasp these concepts with Maximus helping them out. Which of course makes this an excellent little volume to have on your public or school library shelves. Any kids who are interested in science will enjoy reading Going Through the Motions and they will definitely enjoy being able to explain the Laws of Motion to their friends and families.

Unlike Magic School Bus, Going Through the Motions a lot less frenetic. I think this makes it more accessible as a read aloud, to younger audiences that might be distracted by ALL THE THINGS going on in MSB, and to older students who might feel that MSB is too young.

I particularly appreciate both that Nadiyah is an African American girl and that she doesn’t initially get it. I think science is one of those subjects where the narrative around kids who like it is that they understand it right away. Nadiyah realizes how enjoyable science and physics is once she’s given a little extra time with the lesson and a different approach to the concepts. This doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy science or that she isn’t smart enough. When you book talk this or hand sell it to a student, be sure you aren’t just giving it to the kids who are your science-y kids. Offer it to students who you think my enjoy science more if it was a little less academic and more active. And don’t discount using this book for older grades (fifth grade and up). It clearly explains Newton’s Laws of Motion in an easy to understand format with clear examples. There are kids in middle school too that need a little extra oomph.

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01

Mar
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Urban Toons presents Cinderella by Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim

On 01, Mar 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

CinderellaUrban Toons presents Cinderella: A Princess of the Moors written by Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim

From Goodreads: Beautiful, smart, and kind, Safiya lived a charmed life in Italy until her beloved mother died. Her father remarried, bringing two selfish “sisters” into Safiya’s home. Now Safiya is Cinderella, pretty much a servant to her stepsisters. When the prince is looking for a wife, will Cinderella’s natural beauty shine through?

I know what you’re thinking. Really? Another retelling of Cinderella? How many different versions of Cinderella are out there? I know, I know. Tons. I see them on discount shelves at Barnes and Noble, on racks at Costco. None of them take the story further or add anything. And yet, there are several pieces of this version of Cinderella that I loved and that I think make it worth considering adding to your shelves if you collect Cinderella retellings, teach a fairy tale unit, or simply want a version of this classic story to read aloud.

The first is the vocabulary in it. So many of the rehashings of fairy tales simplify the language and I’m not sure why. In this version though, the text is rich with words that will build your child’s vocabulary and make the story so much more interesting to read. Words like “gilt”, “transcend”, and “sorrow”. Be sure to check in from time to time to briefly define some of these words. They make the reading experience so rich.

The second is that the princess is black and the story is set in Moorish Spain. The last library I worked in had a three-foot long section of shelf dedicated to Cinderella retellings that were used by the first grade in their Cinderella study. I don’t think there was a single one that featured a black Cinderella, African American or otherwise. There were a couple Asian (Chinese and Vietnamese, I believe) retellings and tons of Euro-centric versions plus several animal ones. In Cinderella: A Princess of the Moors readers get a little glimpse into an often ignored piece of European history (because we tend to teach European history as something that is exclusive to much whiter and lighter peoples).

Finally, I also love that this publisher, UrbanToons, is taking stories and populating them with black characters. There isn’t a token character of color stuffed into the story somewhere. Black characters fill all the roles and take center stage and that’s very powerful in the current publishing industry.

I personally have mixed feelings about fairy tales but I also recognize many, many people love them and read them. If you’re one of those teachers, parents or librarians be sure to diversify your story collections. Remember that Cinderella, and other fairy tales, aren’t specific to one culture or geographical region. The bones of the story can be broadly applied and we can demand diversity in these traditional stories too.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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22

Feb
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: I Love My Mocha Skin by Crystal Garry

On 22, Feb 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

I Love My Mocha SkinI Love My Mocha Skin written by Crystal Garry, pictures by Mocha Decor

From Goodreads: I Love My Mocha Skin is a short, poetic book that encourages African-American children to love themselves and embrace the skin they were born with.

At its heart this is such a simple book. Each page features a doe-eyed girl in a variety of outfits and hairstyles (although mostly the puffs seen on the cover), while the text celebrates something about her skin color. But there is nothing simple about taking joy in black skin.

I Love My Mocha Skin is such an effervescent celebration of girls of color. Crystal Garry and Mocha Decor have made an appealing character with large brown eyes, cute hair, and exciting outfits that are sure to grab your girly girls. She embraces all the varieties of color skin can come in and how it makes her feel empowered, beautiful, and alive.

Even if you only have one or two kids of color in your library or school or classroom population you need to be sure to have books like this one on your shelves. It’s vitally important that those kids see themselves reflected in your collection in positive, affirming ways. The book is not designed for white children, but don’t discount the importance of white children seeing positive, loving, beautiful representations of children of color. Constantly seeing an all-white cast of characters in books and media gives very powerful messages to all children about who is valuable and who is not.

Do you do a storytime that celebrates black boy joy and/or black girl magic? This would be perfect for younger audiences.

Another lovely book to encourage positive self image in kids of color.

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22

Dec
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Carefree, Like Me! 2 by Rashad Malik Davis

On 22, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Carefree Like Me 2Carefree Like Me! Chapter 2: Sacra the Joyous written and illustrated by Rashad Malik Davis

From the publisher: Amir and Neena joined the adventure of a lifetime by mistake, but they met their first challenge head on. They helped King Root the Brave conquer his “biggest” fear, but will they be able to help bring Sacra the Joyous’s smile and dry home back to life? Continue the adventure inside and get lost in the magic once again. 

In this second installment of the Carefree Like Me! series we pick up where the first book left us hanging! Amir and Neena find themselves in a hot, dry land. As they stumble through the desert they come upon a city full of tired, hot people. Following an alluring flute melody, the two kids meet Ichtaka who explains that the goddess Sacra, who normally brings rain and life, has been absent for some time. He points them in the right direction to find her and try to help bring the rains the land and people so desperately need. Once in Sacra’s palace Amir and Neena realize Sacra needs to find her joy again and they try a number of strategies

Ultimately, a split-second and selfless decision on Neena’s part shows Sacra that maybe she shouldn’t be forever moping around in her palace, but down helping her people. I love the idea that joy is not found in things or even small gestures, but in true friendship. And that with that joy you can bring life and happiness to those around you. Maybe I’m tired of the holidays and all the focus on stuff, but I want more books that show kids the best gifts you can give and get are not things, it’s strong, resilient relationships. Joy is in what you give not what you get.

I also felt the environmental aspect of this was very timely with climate change at the forefront of many of our minds. I wish it was a simple matter of getting a goddess to smile that would bring the rain we need and to stem the tide of climate change, but I do believe this would be a powerful conversation to have with the children you read this book with. Bring up those hard topics again and again. Parent for revolution. Be a library for revolution.

And on that note, investing in and supporting children’s social-emotional development, as these books do, can be revolutionary. We need kids with deep empathy for others if we’re going to turn this world around. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to have conversations with children about emotion and show them that emotions are healthy, natural, essential and human. Davis has included an excellent list of discussion questions and prompts at the back of the book. This can really help you and your child or students dig into what the underlying social-emotional message is in this book. The questions are really great because they’re open ended and acknowledge that while we all have emotions, what each individual needs to care for themselves and their emotions may look different and they encourage children (and their grown-ups) to reflect on what that looks like for them.

Which also brings me to the roots of the civilization shown in chapter 2. There’s a great note at the back of the book that shares more information about the Mexica people. It’s a few facts and a short list of resources Davis used in his research, but it opens up a world to the children reading this book. I cannot get over the fact that Davis’ first note calls the people Aztec then explicitly says they didn’t call themselves that. Take that colonization! He goes on to explain that one of their names for themselves was Mexica (meh-she-ka). He also points out that their language is still spoken and that their descendants are still here!

Another aspect of this I didn’t consider until this second book is that I so appreciate Amir and Neena’s friendship. I feel like it’s incredibly rare to see a close boy-girl friendship and even rarer to see one that doesn’t require one of them to conform to the other’s gender norms. Meaning, Neena doesn’t have to be a tomboy and Amir doesn’t have to be a more feminine boy. Again, parent for revolution. Be a library for revolution. Show kids that binary, rigid gender expectations don’t determine who can and can’t be friends and who you can go on adventures with.

Davis has upped his game in this second chapter both in terms of the art, the length (there is more text), resources at the end, and the actual text. I still really love how fun and whimsical the comic-style art is. It adds levity and humor to the stories. Try not to laugh at Amir’s facial expressions and Neena’s body language. This book feels even brighter and more exuberant than the last. There is more detail in each of the illustrations and lots of bright colors. There’s more texture and shading too. It makes the book feel polished (which isn’t to imply that the last book wasn’t, Davis is just clearly getting better which is to be expected). This book is also rhymed like the first, but Davis has improved here too. I think the longer text helped, but he has some very clever rhymes in there. Kids will appreciate Amir rhyming “interrupt” with “butt” (butt jokes never get old) and adults will appreciate the flow of the text.

Like the first chapter, chapter 2 leaves us on a cliffhanger with yellow eyes opening in the dark. I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment! Libraries of all kinds should have these on their shelves. Not only do our children deserve diverse books, but they also deserve books that cleverly teach them social emotional skills. And we should all be supporting amazing artists like Rashad Malik Davis!

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21

Dec
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Jewels from Our Ancestors by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 21, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jewels from our ancestorsJewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Jamilla Okubo

From Goodreads: Jewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs is a short, illustrated literary collection of words of wisdom from the continent of Africa. The book honors the elders who have come before us and gifted us with sensible sayings that compel both readers and listeners to reflect, learn and grow.

I remember stumbling across The Night Has Ears when I was cleaning up our folk and fairy tales picture book section of the library. I was surprised to discover it was by one of my favorite children’s book authors Ashley Bryan and was quite taken with it both because of his art and the complex simplicity of the proverbs themselves. It seemed like such a grown-up thing to be sharing with children and yet when I shared it with some of my students they clearly grasped these ideas so well.

Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has given us another stunning collection of proverbs for children here with Jewels from Our Ancestors. This is, on the surface, a simple collection of proverbs paired with stunning paintings that depict the saying. Where Bryan’s illustrations are on the psychedelic side, Okubo’s are understated, but no less beautiful. People are shown in silhouette with lovely patterned fabrics. Blue predominates giving it an ethereal quality, but so too do earth tones give the sayings a feeling of groundedness. You can see the brush strokes in the paintings which give large expanses like walls and backgrounds a texture that breaks them up in an inviting way.

The simple proverbs collected by Pizzoli again feel so sophisticated and yet accessible for young audiences. Many share profound advice that all readers would do well to heed while others are light yet meaningful. And while children may or may not be readily able to use the advice they might gather from this collection, they can certainly mull it over for years to come.

The concepts here give the book such a broad range of ways it can be incorporated into the classroom or the home and I see so many uses and applications for the book. For classrooms that study African cultures, you can share these. Of course this should be a piece in a broader study of African cultures and be wary of slipping into fetishizing or exoticising African wisdom and African cultures. Older students might want to research, if they can, the origins of the proverbs and how they relate to the cultures they originated in.

Jewels would also make a great addition to language arts studies of idioms, proverbs, and sayings. Many cultures have proverbs and sayings that impart wisdom in succinct and condensed nuggets. Compare them across cultures and examine their use of sparse, but impactful language. How is that these important pieces of knowledge can be distilled down into such short statements?

In my own home we have a set of cards with affirmations on them that relate to social ideas, emotional regulation, and building self esteem. We tend to read one at the breakfast or dinner table and discuss how it relates to our day or how we feel about it. I could see incorporating these proverbs into dinnertime discussion. Talk about what they mean, how they relate to your day or week, or how you might incorporate them into your daily life. Do any of them speak directly to you or what is going on in your life? I know a number of these did for me and it’s something I would like to share with my daughter. Grown-ups, remember to share your own ideas with children! This isn’t about grilling them about their New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a conversation about how we can all benefit and grow from these pieces of wisdom.

With such beautiful illustrations you could also use the book as a model for collage art. Cutting silhouetted people, using patterned papers to illustrate student’s stories and painted backgrounds and details make this a good model for mixed media art. Let kids experiment with various materials and see if they can illustrate their favorite proverb from the collection.

This would make an excellent addition to any school or home library that wants to diversify it’s collection. And with all the ways you can use it will be worth the purchase price. Please support small independent artists, authors, and presses. The English Schoolhouse in particular puts out gorgeous books at reasonable prices that will make your library collection well rounded and beautiful.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

 

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14

Dec
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Of Gods and Goddesses by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 14, Dec 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Of Gods and GoddessesOf Gods and Goddesses: Deities of Ancient Rome written by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Elena Tommasi Ferroni

From Goodreads: As a young child, I remember reading books about mythology from all over the world and feeling a very strong connection to each of the mythical beings, even though I never recognized myself in the illustrations for the texts I read. In Of Gods and Goddesses: Deities of Ancient Rome, master Italian painter Elena Tommasi Ferroni and I reimagined sixteen ancient Roman deities to reflect the multicultural society of today.

Before my decade long obsession with Ancient Egypt there was Ancient Greece and Rome. I remember a friend of mine giving me a copy of some Usborne book about Ancient Greece and I was off and running from there exploring the ancient world and voraciously reading all the illustrated books about Greek and Roman mythology that I could get my hands on. I wrote reports in my free time I was so excited by this stuff. I would get out of my seat at free reading time to share things with my teacher that I read. I pored over books at home, wrote my own, and drew pictures. I even made a plaster of paris and cardboard Trojan horse. The art aside, this was unlike anything I had ever done before. I was fascinated and I don’t think I was or am alone in that fascination. From my time in the classroom and the library in elementary, middle and high school I have seen kids fall in love with Ancient Rome over and over.

Looking back as an adult I see some pieces to that interest that I was completely unaware of at the time. The first is that, as white girl, I saw myself reflected in the homogenous and white-washed Greek and Roman world presented in children’s books. I didn’t feel alienated or unseen by the books I was consuming. I now know, from further reading I have done in just the past year or two, that the ancient world was far from WASP-y. It feels like a palm-to-forehead kind of idea now, but it just hadn’t occurred to me because of the media I was consuming around it and because of the prevailing narrative we see in education, particularly primary education. With her new book Dr. Tamara Pizzoli has produced something incredible to correct this. She has intentionally included pictures of the gods and goddesses with dark skin and natural hair. A glimpse of the cover lets you know you are in for a treat and that this is not Ancient Rome as usually seen by children.

Which brings me, briefly, to the illustrations. They are stunning. Each one is frame-able (and you can buy prints of them on her website!) they are so beautiful. Each god or goddess is depicted with some symbols of their essence. There are a variety of skin tones, hair types, and clothes (no one is naked, btw, for those of you who need to worry about that). Ferroni illustrated Fatou and Kora, another of Pizzoli’s beautiful books. She has outdone herself here with these portraits. The paper they were originally done on gives them a texture that makes you want to stroke the pages. The color palette is muted and earthy and each text page features a tiled pattern down the left side of the page. It all feels very cohesive and polished. It makes most of the other mythology books I’ve seen seem garish and absurd. This feels like putting high art in a kid’s hands.

The second part of my obsession I have seen upon reflection is that I was struggling with reading at the time. I remember carrying around books and checking them out and even buying a few that I was just not ready to sit down and read through. I read as a kid, but I hit some kind of plateau in forth or fifth grade and didn’t break free from it until middle school. This is why I have such a sympathy for those reluctant readers. And it wasn’t about not having found what interested me. I had a number of interests, but the books that were considered “appropriate” or “at my level” were just too hard. I would stare at the pages and not be able to make heads or tails of the text. I loved flipping through those Eyewitness books, but I didn’t even know where to being reading (as an adult I can see exactly what I should have been doing reading them, but at that time it was too overwhelming). Of Gods and Goddesses is perfect for this type of student. It’s perfect for any student, but if you have those reluctant readers that are dying to get into this topic, you need this book on your shelves. It’s so accessible. Pizzoli has distilled the pantheon down and shared the most relevant information about these gods and goddesses. It gives just enough information to show kids what role these deities played in Ancient Rome while giving them a push to explore more when they’re ready. I know I would have memorized this book as a kid and been able to list off the information whenever I wanted to talk about it with someone.

I know people love to think that picture books are only for young kids, but they are wrong for so many reasons. I cannot recommend this book enough if you serve upper elementary and middle school populations. Waldorf schools in particular come to mind for me here as an educator. They do studies of the Ancient Greek and Roman (and maybe Norse and Egyptian) worlds. Especially the deities. Plus they emphasize beautiful art. Here is a perfect vessel for that study. Ditch your D’Aulaires for this pantheon. They have plenty of problematic content to begin with and this is so much better on all fronts. We all have students who love mythology and the Ancient World, make sure you have this book on your shelves for them.

If you are on Instagram and are reading this before December 21, 2018 hop over to my Instagram account for a chance to win a copy of the book.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of the book by the author to use in a giveaway on Instagram.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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