By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jan 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: At breakfast she learns she has been given a “fresh start,” and she decides to celebrate by doing things differently for the rest of the day. Melena chooses not to fight with her brother, and shares the money she has rather than demanding to be repaid by a less fortunate friend. This story introduces children to the concept of jubilee, which stresses the important principles of debt relief, generosity, and forgiveness.
I will buy nearly any book that Zetta Elliott writes and publishes, my exception being YA because I work in an elementary library (but to be honest I buy those for myself to read). Everything she writes is excellent and the books are popular with our students. I chose this book in particular to be my first review of the year because of the turning-over-a-new-leaf theme that seemed so appropriate for a new year.
Melena’s Jubilee follows Melena through a day where she decides to have a fresh start. She wakes up feeling new and refreshed. The day before she had been in trouble, but today she wants to make things right and make good choices. She inadvertently and indirectly broke a vase of her mother’s and her mother offers to help her glue it back together. She decides to let her brother be instead of whacking him with a pillow. She forgives money owed to her by a friend and she shares her ice cream with her neighborhood friends.
As far as a book to read in the classroom, both the idea of forgiveness and making better choices are concepts we focus on and I think the story will really resonate with some discussion. The idea of starting over also really appeals to me as an educator for helping children move on from bad days. They happen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean they have to hang over us. As a parent I also like these ideas and have talked about them with my daughter when she or I have had a rough day. I originally ordered the book for my library, but after reading it to my daughter she asked for her own copy. Something about the illustrations and the story really clicked for her. This was the first book in a couple months that she has requested I buy.
I hate to say this, but Boyd’s illustrations are bright and rainbow-hued which is like catnip to children. Shallow, but true. The illustrations are beautiful, though and the brightness celebrates the message of the book. The various types of prints and papers used really makes them interesting to pore over. While Elliott’s story is beautiful by itself and has a message without hitting you over the head with it, I think the two together make this a great book. I’m pretty sure the rainbow at the end sealed the deal for my daughter.
If you have money in your budget, be sure to purchase this one. It will find many appreciative readers, from parents to teachers to students.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Nate loves aliens and he really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes and he wants to fit in. What will he do? With the help of his two dads he makes a surprising decision.
I know Purim isn’t for a few more months, but I’ve been previewing books for my springtime storytimes. The Purim Superhero actually gets two points in it’s favor for two kinds of diversity. Which means it will definitely end up on my library shelf and should end up on yours. Nate’s family is both Jewish and has two dads. Woohoo!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Purim it’s a Jewish holiday celebrating Queen Esther and how she saved her people. Jewish children often dress up much like American Halloween. There’s a nice little note in the end of the book that will help explain it to non-Jewish kids, but it’s pretty evident from the story both what the holiday celebrates and what is done to celebrate.
I particularly love that the story is really about Nate struggling with wanting to go along with his friends, but to stay true to his interests, ideas, and desires. For that reason I’m going to be reading it in my superhero themed storytime. The book is about superheros and how kids love them, but it has a lot more depth to it and doesn’t feature a lot of the punch-‘em-up slapstick in the more traditional superhero books. I’m not opposed to that, but it isn’t what I want to read at storytime.
The two dads part of the book is also incredibly important. It’s mentioned and held up briefly as an example of how people can be different, but it isn’t an Issue with a capital I. It just is. When Nate struggles with wanting to be an alien and not superhero for Purim he asks his dads if sometimes they just want to be like everyone else and they respond by using the story of Purim to explain basically, “no, not really, embrace your differences”. Then the book moves on and, while you see the family together, no one mentions it again, no one apologizes or waxes poetic about loving how different they are.
As I said last week, I’m really looking to beef up our Jewish stories in the library both because having a religious diversity in our collection is important, but also because of a fair number of Jewish families in our population. I was particularly glad to find this gem of a book because it celebrates a lesser known (to Christians), but important holiday. I highly recommend this one for school libraries and for classroom libraries if you have other holiday books you bring out. The superhero theme will appeal to all those superhero-obsessed kids, Jewish or not. The message will appeal to educators and parents.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this powerful story of the building of the White House, Coretta Scott King Award winners Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper capture the emotion and toil that created this incredible structure, the home of our president. The White House was created by many hands, several of the slaves’, who will be remembered throughout history for their extraordinary feat. Many slaves were able to purchase their freedom after earning money from learning a trade through this work, which speaks to their unbelievable strength.
I don’t really remember where I came across this book, but I do remember I came across it shortly after all that ridiculous flack Michelle Obama got for mentioning in a speech that the White House was, in part, built by enslaved people. It seemed logical to me even though our educational system managed to miss teaching that fact. I guess it wasn’t logical for others?
Well, here’s a book to make sure your school does actually teach about who really built the White House and who profited from that work. While I think this book does a great job celebrating the hard work people, especially enslaved men and women, put into building the iconic building and how they were eventually able to use it to their advantage, I think it also does a really good job emphasizing that, by and large, the money and rewards went to the white owners of these enslaved people. There is a refrain “Slave hands saw/ twelve hours a day,/ but slave owners take/slave hands’ pay.” that repeats several times after longer passages that show the hard work everyone was putting into the building.
This is definitely a book that should be on school library shelves (public libraries too!). It counters the whitewashed and sanitized history we teach in schools. It shows pride in the work the enslaved and free blacks did. It’s history as it really was. Our second grade does a unit on African Americans, the Underground Railroad, and a little bit on slavery. It bugs me that, while the school claims to be progressive, we still only focus on African folktales (mostly written by white people in the 60s), slavery and the Civil Rights movement when studying anyone black (although with some new teachers this narrative is changing). I am aware that this is still a book that takes place during a time when Africans were enslaved in the US, but it’s a much less well known piece of that history. It does mention that there were free blacks and white immigrants who worked on the project as well. Again, something that isn’t well taught or known. This is the kind of book I want in my collection that counters the narrative of blacks only having two places in history (slavery and Civil Rights Movement).
While the text is important and interesting, the illustrations are also beautiful. Floyd Cooper always does amazing work. Here the illustrations have a hazy, tan wash over them that makes the work seem hot, dusty, and difficult. I love that Cooper gives each person a face to go with the names listed off in the text. It humanizes the people who worked on the White House.
The text is not long, nor is it graphic about slavery or anything that might be deemed too much for young children. I would say you could read this book down into first grade and up into the higher grades. There is a short author’s note at the end that adds a little more historical context that is fascinating and will stretch the picture book into the upper elementary grades. If your school has a library this should be in it. If any of your classes study the nascent nation, this needs to be in your collection. Make sure our kids are learning all our history.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works with hilarious results!
In addition to working on getting visible/racial diversity into our library collection, I am also working on other forms of diversity including disability, family structure and, as is the case with this book, religious diversity. We used to have a lot of Jewish students in our school when I was a student there, but those numbers seem to have dropped somewhat. I don’t really know why, although I think it isn’t so much that there are fewer Jewish kids, just that we have more students snd from more diverse backgrounds so the percentage has dropped. Whatever the case, we are woefully low on books featuring Jewish families and children and, in comparison with Christian holidays, Jewish festivals and holidays. I would be happy if we never bought another Christmas book again.
As evidenced by the title The Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches is a story about a little Jewish town. Every full moon the town is plagued by twenty nine witches that fly around shrieking, frightening the animals, and terrorizing people’s dreams. No on in the town has ever been able to go out and look at the full moon because of the witches. One day, though, an old woman speaks to the rabbi. She wants to be able to see the full moon before she dies so the rabbi comes up with a plan to get rid of the witches. I won’t spoil the plot twist, because even I didn’t see it coming, but he very cleverly finds a way to rid the town of the witches forever. I was reminded of Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins in the trick the rabbi uses, so if you like that kind of cleverness this is well worth looking into.
I was really fortunate in that I found this for a dollar at our local Goodwill!! There were a number of other Jewish books that I was able to snag including Latkes, Latkes Good to Eat (one of my favorites to read at this time of year). Unfortunately it looks like this one is out of print, but if you can find it used for a few dollars it’s well worth adding to your collection. It would be a fun read around Halloween because of the witches or you could tie it in with a moon study because of the full moon. Because it’s out of print I won’t say it’s an absolute necessity, but if you can get it I recommend it. While it features a clearly Jewish town it does not focus on either a holiday or being overtly Jewish. It’s a nice backdrop to the story, like we so often see for Christian stories.
I think this particular books is best for that first-through-third grade range. There is some disagreement in our library on whether or not younger library patrons (i.e. Kindergarteners) can handle books with creepy characters like goblins and witches. The witches are described as scary and mean, but they don’t look particularly mean and they get their comeuppance in the end. My own five year old daughter (the perpetual tester, poor thing) enjoyed the story very much. Your mileage may vary with library patrons, students and children. The book also has a fair amount of text which requires some sitting still and listening. Again, mileage will vary. Finally, the illustrations are black, white, grey and light blue. They’re certainly engaging with lots to look at, but they aren’t bright and colorful. I think the palette enhances and emphasizes the moonlight that the villagers really want to see and enjoy, but it also makes looking at it a little less engaging for younger audiences. Again, mileage will vary and this is why I suggest first through third graders instead of younger audiences.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz’s story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.
So this book needs to be in everyone’s collection. There aren’t very many books about transgender kids or gender non-conforming kids, but those kids are out there and it’s important for them to be reflected in our collections.
The book itself is well written and clear. It isn’t particularly text-heavy, but does have more information in the back of the book including some pictures of Jazz both before and after. I think the text could be helpful both for children who are confused by the feelings they may have and for parents who are also confused and scared. The illustrations are lovely and soft and inviting and really add to the quality of the book.
To be sure the this is an issue book. It follows Jazz Jennings as a young child through her struggle to understand why she wasn’t born female and her family’s struggle to understand as well. It’s all incredibly upbeat, which I think is appropriate for the intended audience. I would love to see books where transgender kids are just par for the course, but these books will strengthen our collections. Both types of books will play a role in making our collections windows and mirrors for all out students, children, and families.
As a side note, I’m seeing nearly all these picture books that focus on what could be transgender kids center around boys who are transgender or feminine. Like Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress or One of a Kind Like Me. Most of these books feature boys who like to wear girls clothing, an interest that is not necessarily gay or transgender, but more to the point where are the girls who are transgender? I wonder if this is in part that girls being more boy-like (i.e. tomboy) is more acceptable and we just haven’t seen as much of a need to write about them yet? (Which isn’t to say those books aren’t needed. They are.) Or if that’s just a harder thing to show in picture books? I would like to see some more books that feature girls, though.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Just savor these bouquets of babies—cocoa-brown, cinnamon, peaches and cream. As they grow, their clever skin does too, enjoying hugs and tickles, protecting them inside and out, and making them one of a kind. Fran Manushkin’s rollicking text and Lauren Tobia’s delicious illustrations paint a breezy and irresistible picture of the human family—and how wonderful it is to be just who you are.
This would be the perfect book to pair with Shades of People and it’s geared toward that age of audience (pre-school and below). It’s also a great starting off point for talking about how we all look different. While there isn’t exactly a plot to the story, the illustrations seem to tie the text to something like one. The loose plot of the illustrations follows a biracial family around their city as they encounter other people. The families shown in the book are a mix of colors, religions, parents, and abilities (as you can probably tell from the cover).
This is definitely the type of book we want on our shelves as it obviously celebrates the diversity we see in people and families. It reminds me a lot of concept book in both it’s plot and subject matter. For that reason I think it would make an excellent addition to storytimes.
The joyful and fun illustrations and gentle text will certainly hold an audience, but it might not make this a book kids are clamoring to check out. My own daughter really enjoyed reading it, but never picked it up on her own to have me read it again. Bear that in mind when thinking about purchasing the book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: After Lester is adopted by Daddy Albert and Daddy Rich, he develops a big problem—he can’t fall asleep. Night after night he creeps into his parents’ room and attempts to crawl in between his two daddies, confident that if he’s with them and their dog, Wincka, nothing bad will happen to him ever again. But every night, Lester’s new dads walk him back to his own room, hoping that eventually Lester will get used to the new house and his new family and feel as though he belongs. They buy him a bike and take him for ice cream. They make cocoa and introduce him to his cousins. But no matter how happy Lester seems during the day, he still gets scared and worried at night! It’s the sweet dog Wincka who finally solves the problem when she climbs into Lester’s bed and promptly falls asleep, serving as both his pillow and his protector. Lester feels home at last.
While from the cover you might think this is a story about a family with two dads, it’s actually a story about adoption. Lester has been living in a children’s home for over a year when he is finally adopted by a family. It just so happens that this family is made up of two dads.
And while the story is about Lester’s struggles with adapting to a new home and a new life while still dealing with the trauma of his earlier life, it’s also just a story about a kid who is afraid of the dark and ends up in his parents’ room every night. As nice as it is for kids to see new situations reflected in their books, this book presents a familiar situation for families with small kids.
I will say the story wanders a bit and could have focused a little more sharply. There is a point where I always think the book is over and then there are a couple more pages. It also has an odd timeline that when reading feels like it stretches over months, but appears to only cover a few weeks at most. To me it felt like it could have used a bit more editing. The text is long, however my own five year old is totally engaged with the story and has asked to read it over and over.
The amazing thing is that this is NOT a book about a family with two dads. It’s a story about adoption and the issues the family faces as parents with an adopted child. Lester is adopted by two dads, but that is just par for the course. There is zero commentary about that and that is such a beautiful thing. In fact there are even a couple illustrated spreads that show the two dads in bed together. I’m sure more prudish and conservative readers will find this scandalous. And in one of those spreads Lester talks about wanting to snuggle up between his two dads to feel safe. I know that will really send some (parent) readers over the edge. But it’s no different than other books I have read showing children snuggled between their heterosexual parents.
I think this is an important book to have on library shelves. It’s there for kids with two dads and adopted children to reflect their lives and it’s there for kids who live with biological, heterosexual parents who will see their peers reflected and come away with a new sense of empathy. It’s there for all kids who have struggled with nighttime fears and loneliness. All in all the sweet story and importance of showing a family with two dads where it isn’t a big deal far outweighs any complaints about it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene’s parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law?
This was the book I read to my daughter the day after the election. I decided it was important for her to start learning the history of how Native Nations have been treated over the years. It isn’t necessarily a new conversation with her, but I think this was one of the most real. Her newest thing is to ask, is this a true story? And this one is.
I can’t say the book is a beautiful story, but it is a beautiful book. It tackles a dark and difficult topic. Irene and two of her brothers are sent off by the local official to the residential school. They last one year and upon returning home for the summer spill the atrocities that they have encountered. Their father comes up with a plan, stands up to the government official, and manages to prevent them from having to go back. Many were not so lucky. A personal and informative author’s note at the end adds a little more detail to the story.
The illustrations fit this beautifully. The sombre color palette and the simple, clean settings perfectly reflect both the mood and place of the book. The nuns are creepily white as I’m sure they probably seemed in their dour habits.
This is a long picture book. Many pages are full of text with a picture on the facing page. I do think it’s intended for a slightly older audience and I think you could use it as a read aloud well up into middle school. But I will say my five year old sat through it with no complaints. The story was captivatingly told.
I can’t stress the importance of having these books in your library collection enough. They reflect accurately the experiences of many Native families and the history of many Native peoples (not just the ones in Canada). They can start conversations, albeit hard ones for us white teachers and parents, around the deep seated racism in our country and how that has played out over the years. They can also ensure that children are being exposed to this history. It is unlikely that most schools are teaching about this in any classroom, even in high schools. If you work in a middle or high school library I recommend putting this on your shelf, but if you can’t or won’t put a picture book out, get Fatty Legs and promote that.
I had a private school education and as an adult I find myself asking what the hell my parents paid for. I learned nothing. Nothing. Ignoring the difficult parts of history and literature, I still learned nothing. Make sure that doesn’t happen to your students.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Mo Jackson is a small boy with a big passion for sports. He may not be the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest kid on the team, but he won’t let that stop him from playing!
I would call this a cute story. Mo is the youngest and smallest on his baseball team. He’s kind of bummed because he always bats last and he always plays right field. He is also pretty terrible at bat. Through the course of the game he thinks about how to bat well enough to get a hit. He also thinks he wants to get a home run. In the last inning and after two strikes Mo turns to hear what his coach is yelling and accidentally gets a hit. It’s not a great hit, certainly not a home run, but Mo gets to second base and bats in two other runners, winning the game. Mo realizes home runs are nice, but not necessary to win.
I loved that the crowd and players on the team were diverse. There are girls and boys and various skin tones. Mo himself, as you can see on the cover, looks African American. I particularly like that. It seems that usually these books feature a white main character and you see the diversity in the background.
The reading level is fairly low which is just right for those emerging readers (but not very beginning readers). I think I have first graders and some low second grade readers who would be confident reading this. There are a handful of sight words and a few more advanced spelling patterns, but otherwise it’s totally manageable.
My only complaint is that it’s baseball. We really don’t have any kids that play baseball right now (okay, maybe one or two?). I suppose they may enjoy reading about baseball even if they don’t play it, but it seems to be our basketball and soccer books that check out more regularly. Regardless, I’ll be purchasing a copy of this one for the easy reader collection. I would recommend it if you are looking to add diversity to that collection too, or if you need some easier readers or if you want a sports themed book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Four friends. Three cookies. One problem. Hippo, Croc, and the Squirrels are determined to have equal cookies for all! But how? There are only three cookies . . . and four of them! They need to act fast before nervous Hippo breaks all the cookies into crumbs!
From Goodreads: Walt and his friends are growing up! Everyone is the something-est. But . . . what about Walt? He is not the tallest, or the curliest, or the silliest. He is not the anything-est! As a BIG surprise inches closer, Walt discovers something special of his own!
So Elephant and Piggie are kind of back. They introduce these new easy readers which have totally different characters and stories in them. Both books seem to follow that funny and successful format of the Elephant and Piggie books. The characters want to do something, but there is a problem. Everyone overreacts and then a solution presents itself.
I think kids will like these books. I know in my library we have to limit the kids to one Elephant and Piggie book per check out otherwise there aren’t enough to go around. The similar format will help pull them in. They have a similar sense of humor which kids L-O-V-E, LOVE. The illustrations are great and they have the same quality as Elephant and Piggie so I suspect they’ll hold up as long as those.
In terms of difficulty of spelling patterns and vocabulary, they aren’t for your very first readers even if they don’t have that many words in them. They’ll require some knowledge of spelling patterns like -ing and a good ability to blend sounds. They also have a fair amount of sight words in them. I would say they’ll work for first grade and early second grade and any low readers. Certainly anyone who has read Elephant and Piggie will be able to manage them.
I’ll be buying these, but they don’t feature any diversity. It’s all animals and grass. We don’t need more animals books in our easy reader section, but I know our kids will love these and I have to balance my desire to improve the collection with getting things I know the kids will go bananas over. Which isn’t to say there aren’t diverse readers out there that the kids won’t go bananas over, I just haven’t found them yet.