By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Wolf & Vampire written by Ellie Ann, illustrated by MJ Erickson
From the publisher: Wolf likes pie, fish, mud, singing to the moon, and most of all her family. On the other hill lives a vampire family, whom she’s taught to fear. One day, silver rain attacks Wolf’s house, and she runs, injured. Wolf meets Vampire, who has also been injured. She must decide if she should help someone she’s afraid of. Can they team up in order to save their families?
This is the third Castor Tales easy reader I got and it was as good as the others. There is both family diversity as well as racial diversity. Wolf is a biracial werewolf. Her father is white (he looks like a hipster werewolf, which made me laugh) and her mother is a woman of color (it’s not stated what she is and it isn’t obvious from the illustrations). Vampire is a girl of color (again it is not specified) who has two dads, one of whom is black.
One day while out and about Wolf’s family is overtaken by a silver storm. They scramble into a cave where they run into their rival, Vampire’s family. Vampire’s family has been chased out of their house by the garlic people. Just try not to laugh at the garlic people when you finally see them. They are hilarious and I think give an otherwise serious story a hit of levity. The story is about how initially the two families distrust each other, but after their concurrent tragedies the two girls bring them together. The werewolf family cleans up the garlic people and the vampire family sweeps up the debris the silver rain left. In the end they have changed their minds about each other and share some tea together.
There were two things that, to me, set this one apart. First, the language seemed a little harder. It still has the great repetition of the others, the list of sight words, and small word count per page. For whatever reason, though, some of the words used seemed just slightly harder. That’s perfect, the series grows with the reader. Second, it will take some background knowledge about vampires and werewolves for kids to understand what exactly is going on in the story. Nothing a little explanation from a parent or teacher couldn’t provide.
This whole series has been incredibly refreshing. Between the diverse casts of characters to the fantasy genre of the books they are really different from the usual early easy reader fare.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Spend the day picking wild blueberries with Clarence and his grandmother. Meet ant, spider, and fox in a beautiful woodland landscape, the ancestral home of author and illustrator Julie Flett. This book is written in both English and Cree, in particular the n-dialect, also known as Swampy Cree from the Cumberland House area.
Wild Berries is such a charming story about a little boy and his grandmother going out to collect blueberries. The two enjoy nature, each other’s company, and of course blueberries. Grandma likes soft sweet ones, while Clarence likes large sour ones.
Flett’s illustrations have this very modern quality to them that is just beautiful. They are simple but not simplistic and there is always plenty to look at. I love her use of a muted, natural palette. It fits well with the wild berry picking story. She also employs textures very effectively. They seem to draw your eye around the page and to important details.
The typography in the book is also incredibly stunning. It stuck out to me in a way few other books have. Certain key words are pulled out of the text and placed on their own line in a more fanciful font. This is then echoed with the word written in the Swampy Cree dialect in the same font, but this time in red. (There is a very interesting note at the beginning and end about the Cree dialect used in the book.)
The book is, at least to American audiences, akin to Blueberries for Sal and if you are looking for diverse books to incorporate into your curriculum you could certainly use this one in place of Blueberries or in tandem with it. I would recommend this to parents looking to diversify their bookshelves too. Make space in your budget and on your shelves for this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Petra’s the best archer in the world. They shoot high, they shoot low, and hit whatever they aim for. One day, soldiers come and offer them gold if they’ll do a hard job. Should Petra take it? This book is about using your skills for good, and features a non-gendered protagonist.
This another one of the three Castor Tales that I got and I like it as much as I like Rook. Petra is a talented archer who is approached one day by a group of men who want Petra to shoot a man. They try to justify the murder by saying the man is bad and Petra is a good girl. Petra responds with “I am no girl! I am no boy! I am Petra!” There are two important things going on here. First is the message of standing up to people trying to coerce you into making bad choices. I am not fond of books with a Message or moral, but I think it’s subtle enough here and empowering. That empowerment I think comes from the second thing going on in the story, the fact that Petra both declares that they are only Petra, neither boy nor girl. Petra’s power and strength come from being uniquely Petra. I am not positive, but I hope this story allows children who may be struggling to fit into gender norms a strong character to identify with.
It’s also empowering for children to see that Petra, a fellow child, is brave enough to stand up to adults who want to do something bad. It can be really difficult for children to stand up to older children and adults in order to follow their moral compass. So often we teach them to submit to authority without question. Petra gives kids a good example of someone being true to themselves and not being afraid to speak up and reject the authority figures.
Petra is then approached by another set of people who want help. At first Petra is frustrated thinking they want another murder, but it turns out they need help healing the sick moon. Petra is glad to help with that task and saves the day.
The art is very different from Rook. It’s a lot wispier and softer with a celestial feel that suits Petra’s ultimate task of helping the moon. It also gives the clothing and hair a lot of movement and makes the faces expressive. As with Rook, Petra is very simple and would be a great addition to classrooms and libraries with emerging readers. These books are not first readers, but they’re close. Nearly all the words are either simple to sound out or come from a list of first sight words. They range from 5-20 words per page and when that count is on the upper end of the range most of the words are repeated. For example: “I shoot the sea. I can even shoot the moon! Boom! But I do not. I do not want to hurt the moon.” So just to be clear readers will have to know or be ready for some simple sight words plus have some skills to sound out a word or two.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Imagine a childhood full of adventure. Where riding horses, playing in the woods, and hunting for food was part of everyday life; where a grizzly bear, a raccoon, or a squirrel was your favorite pet. But imagine, too, being an orphan at the age of six, being forced off your land by U.S. soldiers, and often going hungry. Such was the childhood of the first great American Indian author, Charles Eastman, or Ohiyesa (1858-1939). Carefully edited for a younger audience by multiple award-winning author and editor, Michael Oren Fitzgerald, Indian Boyhood recalls Eastman s earliest childhood memories. He was born in a buffalo hide tipi in western Minnesota, and raised in the traditional Dakota Sioux manner until he was fifteen years old. He was then transplanted into the white man s world. Educated at Dartmouth College, he went on to become a medical doctor, renowned author, field secretary for the YMCA, and a spokesman for American Indians. Eastman was at Pine Ridge during the Ghost Dance rebellion of 1890-91, and he cared for the wounded Indians after the massacre at Wounded Knee. In 1910 he began his long association with the Boy Scouts of America, helping Ernest Thompson Seton establish the organization.
The book starts off well with an interesting foreword by Charles Trimble, a registered Oglala Lakota, that identifies the specific nation that Ohiyesa/Eastman was part of. In the foreword he presents the historical context and sets the scene for the book and while not graphic, he is unflinching in how he presents the events that shaped Ohiyesa/Eastman’s life.
“In the so-called Indian Uprising of 1862 the Dakota people rebelled against white incursions onto their lands and the government’s withholding of treaty-guaranteed rations that left them starving. Ohiyesa/Eastman’s extended family fled to Canada to escape the U.S. Army, which was hell-bent on brutal vengeance…”
This foreword is followed up by an editor’s note in which Fitzgerald is upfront about what changes he has made to the original text. The story and text is adapted from Ohiyesa/Eastman’s autobiography. It seems most of the text was simplified and shortened to make it more accessible to younger readers and to fit it into this format. It appears that all involved with the project are hoping to spark interest in Ohiyesa/Eastman. In a brief footnote Fitzgerald also explains that he is using the term Sioux because it is the term in the original work. He goes on to at least acknowledge that the term is European-American and lists the Nations that fall under that category. At the end of the note Fitzgerald claims that all royalties are being donated to various American Indian causes. We’ll have to take him at his word on that.
The story itself is an interesting look at the Sioux way of life and follows Eastman through the first 15 or so years of his life. The text is fairly short which really makes it best suited to young audiences (first and second grade, probably even kindergarten). In some places I was left wanting more information and detail. That is part of the purpose of the book, but I do think there could have been a little bit more. It paints an idyllic and fun life for a child with hours of play and learning skills like tracking and hunting. But he also shares times that the families went hungry. I do wish the story had continued further and addressed some of his time being schooled in the white town he moves to with his father.
The illustrations are pretty and are reminiscent of Paul Goble’s illustrations. I am not familiar with art from those nations or that area and the similarity makes me wonder if it copies a style seen in Sioux art. There is a page of notes on the illustrations that explains what objects in the illustrations are and their significance. I’m a little put off by the last picture that, according to the notes, is an “imaginative image of Eastman”. It hits a little close to stereotypes, even if its depiction is accurate.
I have mixed feelings about them using Ohiyesa’s white name as the author and including his given name in parentheses. I am glad they included it, but I am left wondering which he would have preferred and which is more culturally appropriate (I suspect the given name).
The reason I reviewed this book, beyond it being interesting, was that I am looking for materials for our third grade class which studies the Sioux. While I am not qualified to make decisive judgements on books about Native Nations, I have to make some calls on what materials to purchase. I think for a general collection this would make a great addition. It’s a little idyllic, but taking into account the fact that it’s true and the book’s notes outside the text, it seems well rounded. I also think it would make an appropriate addition to a home or classroom library for the same reasons. I prefer something like this over presenting made up “native American” legends or stories that are told by outsiders. I am going to pass it along to our third grade teachers, but I suspect the text itself may be a little bare bones for their tastes. I would recommend using it in a classroom in conjunction with both other materials (maybe even Eastman’s original books) and being sure to read the notes and foreword together.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Rook is about a cunning young thief who takes whatever she wants. But one day, she steals from the wrong witch and she’s caught! The witch takes her in, and teaches her how to create, not take.
Rook came as one of three in a set of easy readers from Castor Tales. I got them through a Kickstarter campaign. The purpose was to put out easy reader fantasies with diverse characters. Last year when I went through our easy reader collection (you can see the stats here) I was unsurprised to discover it was very homogenous and focused almost entirely on talking animals and/or realistic fiction. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of kids who love those kinds of stories, but if we’re trying to get kids interested in reading we need to be sure we can serve all kids, including those that like nonfiction, fantasy, and science fiction. I think this is especially true for roping in reluctant readers.
When I set out to improve the collection, I struggled to find high quality easy readers that featured diversity in their genres and characters. It often worked out that I could get one or the other but rarely both. I gave to the Kickstarter campaign because I saw first hand the lack of variety and diversity and realized there is a need for books like these.
Rook was a lot of fun. She’s a thief with a pet corvid and, in the beginning of the story, we see her stealing from a variety of people. Then she steals from a witch, oh poo. But instead of a cruel witch, she wants to help Rook change her ways. While you could focus on the theme of making better choices or even friendship, I saw an opening for a discussion around society’s current obsession with consumption. Rook begins by proudly announcing she is a thief who always takes. But with the support of a friend, someone who wants to accept her, she is able to shift to creating. Not to sound like the grumpy old man shouting about getting off the lawn, but kids do a lot of consuming, particularly of online content. I think it’s healthy for us to have conversations with them about not only consuming, but also creating their own content to put out into the world.
Other great features of the book are bright and lively illustrations. They feel like they come right out of an animated series. I especially adore Rook herself. She’s got jewelry, henna or tattoos, a partially shaved head and dirt smudges. I appreciate when characters in picture books don’t conform to some clean, White ideal of what people should look like. Showing girls that they can be strong and beautiful no matter how they choose to look (or are born looking) is an incredibly powerful and important message we need to send.
The book also features a list of the sight words used in the story on the back cover. These are easy readers with some thought put into them. I am tired of books marketed as level one easy readers that have way too many words on a page or really complex spelling patterns. Even a classic like Frog and Toad is not for emerging readers. Rook has a few more difficult words that have more complex spelling patterns in them (“create”), but, by and large, the book uses simple sight words (as seen on the back) and basic, predictable spelling patterns. My own daughter should be able to read it with me in a few months (she recently started reading). Even the harder words are repeated so children will have a chance to see them several times in the course of the story. The text also cleverly repeats which allows them to draw on their memory and shows new readers that, while they are reading the same words again, the meaning has changed.
So, I definitely recommend Rook for classrooms and libraries that serve emerging readers. Unfortunately I don’t think you can buy them just yet. You can visit the website and Kickstarter campaign, but I couldn’t find anything about when or if they would be available outside the campaign which ended last fall. In the meantime I would suggest keeping your eye out for them or contacting the publisher.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Amazon: Furqan Moreno wakes up and decides that today he wants his hair cut for the first time. His dad has just the style: a flat top fade! He wants his new haircut to be cool but when they get to the barbershop, he’s a bit nervous about his decision. He begins to worry that his hair will look funny, imagining all the flat objects in his day to day life. Before he knows it, his haircut is done and he realizes that his dad was right-Furqan’s first flat top is the freshest!
I’ll point out right at the start that this a book that was published with a Kickstarter campaign. I know that some libraries cannot buy books that are self-published or not reviewed. Sad for them. This book is amazing.
Liu-Trujillo is an incredible artist. I am always impressed when people can successfully paint anything besides a wash with watercolor, but he’s managed to capture expressions, places, and objects perfectly. I adore the illustration with the father shaving in the bathroom in mismatched socks and his underwear while Furqan stands by the tub with a tentative look on his face. Throughout the book the dad has the look of love on his face as he reassures Furqan and supports him by taking him to the barbershop.
The story is a sweet one about Furqan wanting to cut his hair. He’s always worn it short and curly, but he thinks he wants a flat top. Liu-Trujillo has perfectly captured the illogical anxiety kids can have over everyday things like haircuts. Furqan worries his hair will be flat like a pancake or record. He’s also worried about the reaction he’ll get at school. While the story is about a change in hairstyle, I think it applies more broadly to the anxiety children can have over their first haircut. Will it hurt? Will it look silly? Will it grow back?
Liu-Trujillo also nails a supportive and reassuring dad. I appreciate the book even more for mentioning a mom, but not showing her involved in the story. Even as an involved mother I want to share books with my daughter that show dads can be involved and good parents too. If you have young kids who may be getting their first haircuts or older kids who may want to change their style you have an automatic audience. The cover and illustrations are so appealing that kids will pick this off the shelf and want to take it home regardless of their hair. Pair it with Zetta Elliot’s A Hand to Hold for books about first experiences and wonderful dads.
If you can buy this book, do it. The copy I ordered came in a beautifully addressed envelope! It was signed and had three stickers, too! I should also point out that I read it to my daughter and I’m going to have to order a new copy for the library because she loves this book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Little Blk Books: Everyone is excited about Auntie Cynthia’s wedding – everyone except little Femi. He is not excited about having to share his room or meeting new cousins who may play with his toys. What do weddings have to do with little boys anyway? When his family arrives from Nigeria, Femi is amazed at the beautiful crowns and colorful garments they wear. With the help of Auntie Koy, he learns the value of family and the importance of tradition.
I signed my daughter up for the Wam! Book Bundle which sends us three books a month that feature diverse characters. It’s always a big deal when the box shows up on our porch. This past month they included their first independently published book and it was the first book my daughter picked out to read.
The story reminded me a bit of The Wedding Week, another phenomenal independently published book that I reran yesterday, in that Femi’s family is Nigerian (although he and his parents live here in the US) and they’re prepping for an upcoming wedding. Here, though, the story is about building up cultural pride. Femi is bored by the idea of a wedding (“Wedding? For the last few months Mommie and his Aunties looked at girl stuff and got excited about silly flowers.”) and worried about sharing his bedroom and toys with visiting cousins (“From left to right, and every space in between, he couldn’t find a single place where his cousins could sleep.”).
Fortunately Auntie Koy steps in to help Femi see the positive side of weddings. She explains that everyone will be wearing a crown, geles for the women and filas for the men. The tradition started a long time ago and is meant to show everyone that their people are royalty. Femi begins to think it might not be so bad after all if he gets to be a prince. And when his cousins show up he discovers they’re actually a lot of fun to have around.
The wedding is a success and Femi has a blast. Even though he’s sad everyone has left he draws on the warm feelings his Auntie Koy left him with around the meaning of the fila he has to wear and the memories of the wedding. The book does a really good job of balancing giving the reader a story to follow and providing cultural information. It’s buy turns funny and heart warming.
The reading level is maybe just a little lower than most picture books which would make it a good selection if you have kids that want to try and read these books on their own. Otherwise it’s right in the mix. The book itself is paperback which I know can be a drag for libraries. The print quality is actually quite good, though. The pages are a nice thick, glossy paper. I think this is a must for library collections if you can order books like this. It’s a great story with bright and inviting illustrations and it centers family and cultural pride.
If you are interested order the book here on their website: Little Blk Books
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Milo is excited about her class trip to the museum. The docent leads them on a tour and afterward Milo has time to look around on her own. But something doesn’t feel right, and Milo gradually realizes that the people from her community are missing from the museum. When her aunt urges her to find a solution, Milo takes matters into her own hands and opens her own museum!
It’s just a Zetta Elliott kind of week around here. Whatever she publishes, I buy it as soon as it’s available (or as soon as I find out about it) and you should too. Milo’s Museum is a book I wish I had had as a kid, because after seeing Milo create her own museum, I would have done the exact same thing. Milo does it for reasons that would not have been my own, but just the idea of curating your own collection was (and still kind of is!) incredibly enticing.
This book was interesting in light of reading the Tonya Bolden book about the building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Milo doesn’t see herself in the local museum she visits on a field trip so she decides to create her own. That brought to mind part of the impetus behind the NMAA. As Milo walks around the museum she becomes increasingly uncomfortable. She isn’t quite sure why, but eventually realizes that she isn’t seeing herself or her community reflected in any of the art or artists.
I would highly recommend this for school libraries and classrooms. Be sure to read it before and/or after visiting a museum on a class field trip. I think it will certainly inspire kids of all ages to curate and create their own museums that reflect them and their communities. And I would encourage you to help your students do just that. Milo takes different people through her museum so you can see what she has chosen. She also gives explanations for why she has chosen objects. This provides a good model for helping students choose what they want in their own museum. I also think with older students you could open up a discussion about who decides what will go into a museum and how that unfairly tends to keeps certain artists and people out of them.
An all around inspiring and important book. As with Melena’s Jubilee, if you have the money this is a must to have on your shelves.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Swift Walker loved to walk fast. His sister warned him, “One day, you’ll walk so fast you won’t be able to stop!” Sure enough, his speedy legs took him on a journey to see all the oceans of the world.
This was the perfect introduction to the names and locations of the world’s oceans. Swift Walker is a young boy who loves to move and as he’s out walking one day he finds himself exploring the six oceans on our planet. After a quick jaunt around the globe Swift finds himself at home just in time for dinner.
This was the perfect level for preschool, Kindergarten and even first grade. It didn’t get too detailed so the story and information wasn’t bogged down. I tested the book out with my daughter and caught myself wondering if they book should have had more facts and details. However, I noticed that my daughter was super engaged and didn’t ask to skip sections or just flip the page in the middle of reading as she does with nonfiction books that do have more. I realized it was right where she needed it to be. It’s a simple introduction to the idea of geography and that while we have one big ocean we do break it down into smaller sections that share location and ecology. Working a fun character and silly story into the book made the information much easier for her to take in too. I think Swift will be recognizable to most kids. He can’t keep still and wants to set off on adventures.
I would like to point out the font in the book (you can see it there on the cover with the subtitle). It’s a pretty traditional school font, kind of like D’Nealian. For kids learning to read and recognize letters these familiar and simple fonts are so important to have in books. As much as I love a beautiful font and fun with text elements in picture books they can make the reading experience frustrating and nearly impossible for emerging readers. The simplicity of this book would make this one a great shared reading experience with a parent and child or student and teacher. The illustrations are bright and colorful and make for a fun reading experience. I will say, I’m sorry librarians, it’s paperback. If you can tape it up and bear with it, it will be well worth it. As with a lot of these self published and small press books, you may have to hand sell them. Although with Swift Walker the covers are incredibly inviting, so they may sell themselves if you turn them face out on the shelf or on display.
Ultimately the book was a lot of fun to read and offered a quick dip into the oceans of the world without overburdening young readers. It would make a great addition to collections that serve curious young minds that want to explore the world.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: The Monkey King’s Daughter isn’t about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King – it’s about his daughter, Meilin. Only, Meilin doesn’t know she’s the Monkey King’s daughter. In fact, she doesn’t know she’s half-monkey at all. As far as Meilin knows, she’s an ordinary 14 year-old high school freshman from Midland Hills, California, facing all the problems that bright young girls face at that age- flakey girlfriends, zits, too much homework, bad hair, obnoxious boys… But all of that changes when her ancient past catches up with her. (And she thought high school was gonna be easy…)
Today I have another great self published series. I said in another recent review that I am getting rather tired of Greek mythology. Because of Percy Jackson it seems to be everywhere. As a kid I went through a phase where I was into Greek mythology and I still enjoy it, but there is a lot of really interesting mythology out there (I was always way more fascinated with Egyptian mythology) and I wish I had been able to discover it as a young reader. The Monkey King’s Daughter is based in Chinese stories of the Monkey King. If you’ve read Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese you will be familiar with the myth this book draws on. Plenty of it is explained in the course of the story and will make sense to kids unfamiliar with it.
Despite Melin’s age and the fact that she’s in high school, the book is totally appropriate for upper elementary. It’s perfect for kids who like to age up. I would also highly recommend it for lower readers in middle school. The story is exciting enough, but the reading level isn’t particularly difficult.
The pacing was off in a few places. Most of the time the story plugged along, but there were a couple places where things happened a little quickly, felt rushed, and were glossed over. I think this has less to do with it being self published and more to do with the reading level it’s intended for. I don’t know exactly where it falls, but it’s a little more difficult than beginning chapter books, but not nearly as difficult as Percy Jackson (or as long).
My only other complaint is that when Meilin meets her father for the first time she isn’t awkward or angry or anything. She runs into his arms and they spend an evening star gazing together, enjoying each other’s company. I just had a hard time believing that a kid who hasn’t met her father would feel overwhelming love for a man who was never around. Will most kids care about this? The only kids who might are ones who have not met their fathers or who have experienced meeting them later in life. Does that make the book unworthy? I don’t think so. I doubt most kids who will tear through the adventure in this will mind that it isn’t totally authentic. Just be aware it may fall a little flat for some readers.
I really hope this story leads kids to the original Monkey King stories from the different parts of Asia. They’re very exciting and funny. Meilin takes some things in stride, but she was a very realistic kid. She didn’t suddenly become good at everything when she discovered her heritage and fell into her adventure. This is the first in a series and I’ll be buying the rest (I bought the first to try it out). It’s well worth having on our library shelves, particularly if you have kids who love mythology (we all have Riordan fans) and kids who like action.