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11

Jan
2019

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: An Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott

On 11, Jan 2019 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Angel for MariquaAn Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: Christmas is coming, but eight-year-old Mariqua Thatcher isn’t looking forward to the holidays. Mama’s gone and Gramma doesn’t know what to do with her feisty granddaughter. Almost every day Mariqua gets into a fight at school, and no one seems to understand how she feels inside. But things start to change when a mysterious street vendor gives Mariqua a beautifully carved angel as a gift. 

I know I’m a little late in reviewing this as it’s a Christmas book, but don’t pass over this review just yet. An Angel for Mariqua needs to be on your shelves. Mariqua’s mother has been incarcerated for a drug offense and now Mariqua is living with her grandmother attending a new school. Grandma is kind, but also elderly and not well equipped to raise a child. At school Mariqua is teased by one boy in particular, but sometimes by others, for having a “jailbird” mother. All this makes Mariqua feel small and angry and she lashes out at her one friend, her grandmother, and her classmates. She’s not a bad kid by any means, but she’s struggling. Then a chance encounter with a street vendor who gifts her a brown-skinned angel and meeting an older girl from her building helps Mariqua begin to come to terms with the big changes she’s faced in her life.

This is such a beautiful story about a girl making friends and learning to find value and the good in herself. She comes to find joy in small things and small kindnesses, while also coming to accept her situation and the friendship people offer her. When she is befriended by Valina, Mariqua also learns to see that others are also struggling. Valina is a beautiful example of a friend who isn’t perfect (she has her own family struggles that prevent her from keeping all her promises), but sets such a good example for Mariqua of how to be gracious and graceful. I absolutely adore the friendship the two girls form. Valina has been where Mariqua is, as far as being angry at the world for unfair but uncontrollable circumstances, and she can offer so much support to Mariqua as she works her way through her loneliness and anger.

The reading level would be good for strong third graders, many/most fourth graders, and fifth grade readers based on the length and complexity of the text. But I read it aloud to my seven year old (second grade age) and she enjoyed it very much. I would put it in a transitional chapter book section in the library.

I would caution libraries and collections to ensure that they have other representations of black children and children of color. While the book doesn’t pander to stereotypes, it does have an incarcerated mother with drug charges and an absent black father. These are very real issues for some children of color, but it cannot be the only narrative in book collections about families of color. Still, this is an incredibly positive representation of the situation and Elliott is such a wonderful, deft, and sensitive writer that you can’t go wrong with having it on your shelf. Make it a part of your holiday collections, displays, and read alouds.

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

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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21

Nov
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Water Walker by Joanne Robertston

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

Water WalkerThe Water Walker written and illustrated by Joanne Robertson

From Goodreads: The determined story of an Ojibwe grandmother (nokomis), Josephine Mandamin, and her great love for nibi (water). Nokomis walks to raise awareness of our need to protect nibi for future generations and for all life on the planet. She, along with other women, men and youth, has walked around all the Great Lakes from the four salt waters, or oceans, to Lake Superior. The walks are full of challenges, and by her example she challenges us all to take up our responsibility to protect our water, the giver of life, and to protect our planet for all generations.

Based on a true story, The Water Walker, shares the story of Josephine Mandamin, a woman who was inspired by a prophecy to protect water. The book tracks her activism around water protection and the group of Water Walkers that she formed who join her on her many walks across North America.

I appreciate that the book shows simple activism. There are not organized marches here, no fundraisers, no political campaigns. Just a woman with a passion and a pair of shoes. Activism comes in many forms, but this is an accessible form for children. Just get out and do something to make a point and draw attention to an issue you’re passionate about. Don’t feel like you have to raise tons of money or get celebrities to endorse your cause.

It has the most adorable illustrations. They are bright and inviting and have a child-like feel to them that will really appeal to kids. To be clear, I don’t think a child could have drawn these, just the stylized form and watercolor/marker (?) medium make it feel like children’s drawings. Kids love to see books that mirror their art and are often inspired by them to make their own books and tell their own stories.

I love that Ojibwe words are just dropped into the text and not translated. This centers an Ojibwe-speaking audience instead of a non-Native audience. There are a lot of children’s books out there that are faux-Native, but this is an #ownvoices story that doesn’t pander to a white audience. There is a little glossary at the back of the book so if you couldn’t figure out what the word is from the context, there’s help. Also, it’s contemporary, not historical. It is vitally important that we show our students and children that Indigenous people are still here despite the best efforts of the U.S government (and previous colonial powers) to eradicate them.

While you could certainly use this book during Native American Heritage Month, it should be out all year long. Indigenous people are still here and they deserve representation in our classrooms and on our shelves all year long. Water is also a perennial issue with climate change, drought, Flint, Michigan, pollution, and myriad other issues that bring it to the forefront. You should be talking about these things with your children and your students. If you want to work it into a classroom study, use it with the water cycle. Put it out near the water table or with your water play station. Use it near Earth Day or when you study recycle/reduce/reuse. Pull it out when your kids are letting the faucet run too long while they wash their hands or brush their teeth. Or just use it to start a conversation about environmental justice. It’s a great way to get representation into science lessons and a great way to work environmental justice and social justice into lessons where we haven’t traditionally seen those topics. However you use it, put it on your shelf and get it into kids hands.

Pair this one with Young Water Protectors by Aslan Tudor.

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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17

Nov
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: They She He Me: Free to Be! by Maya and Matthew Gonzalez

On 17, Nov 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

They She He MeThey She He Me: Free to Be! written and illustrated by Maya and Matthew Gonzalez

From the publisher: Pronouns sere as a familiar starting point for kids and grown-ups to expand ideas about gender and celebrate personal expression with fun imagery that provides a place to meet and play. 

I don’t normally read other reviews prior to writing my own, but I happened to read some for this book and I want to address something I saw in a couple of them. And that is the idea that this book must be read with a parent to help children understand it. I call b.s. on that idea. It can absolutely be used as a conversation starter between parent and child (or educator and child) and since many young children cannot read on their own it may be a shared reading experience. But, the idea that kids need an adult to explain the idea of gender and especially a non-binary idea of gender to them is very, very gender normative and promotes cisgender as both normal and dominant. I think most children understand that male and female and the roles “traditionally” assigned to those labels are very limiting and frequently inadequate in expressing how they feel about gender. I certainly remember the feeling of “not being a good girl” because I liked to run around with the boys and because I wasn’t into pink or princesses, while still having close girl friends and loving My Little Ponys and identifying at cisgender female. Kids understand that a gender binary is too limiting, even if they identify as cisgender and this book gives them validation that they are right about that and also gives them the language they can use to express that.

Okay, with that out of the way, this is wonderful little book to have on your shelves. It’s very simple in it’s execution, which actually makes it work well as a picture book and an easy reader. Just a quick note, “they”, “she”, “he”, “me”, “we”, “to” and “be” are all sight words (words kids need to memorize on sight instead of sounding out each and every time they encounter them in a text). Very young kids will enjoy reading through this and looking at the people and even older children will be captivated by the ideas shown here (my seven year old still likes to read this one).

Maya’s illustrations are always so charming. Happy people and children with flushed cheeks, she presents a mix of skin colors, clothing, ability, and hair. Babies and toddlers, who love faces, will enjoy looking at the pictures, while young kids will enjoy the added experience of seeing the pronouns the people identify with below them. If you can read this to babies and toddlers all the better, as it will counteract some (but by no means all) of the societal pressure to conform to narrow ideas of male and female.

This is definitely one to have in your home and on your library shelves. Might you get push back from parents and patrons? Yes. But don’t let that deter you. Kids who don’t conform to the male-female binary deserve and need to see themselves in our books. We also need to give kids the vocabulary to describe gender. Please read my post about soft censoring books for more on the insidious nature of caving to the pressure of possible complaints.

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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07

Nov
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: K is for Kahlo by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli

On 07, Nov 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

K is for KahloK is for Kahlo written by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, pictures by Howell Edwards Creative

From Goodreads: K is for Kahlo is an artistic tour of the alphabet featuring notable artists from all around the globe. From painters to sculptors to muralists to architects, explore the creativity of some of the most influential artists in this vibrant and unique take on the abc’s.

Normally I’m a little confused by ABC books. What exactly is their purpose? Their content seems to be aimed at the three and under set, kids who aren’t really learning letters yet per se. Add to this that a lot of them use words that do not correctly represent the sound the letter makes (e.g. using owl for “o” or giraffe for “g”), so they’re not particularly helpful even if a kid was learning their letters. And by the time kids are actually learning their ABCs to employ in the process of reading, they’re past the simplicity of an ABC book.

K is for Kahlo, on the other hand, turns the ABC book format on it’s head. Pizzoli, of Tallulah brilliance, has employed the ABC form in a way that makes perfect sense. She takes the form and gives it function. Each letter is associated with an artist and features the letter clearly written and a stylized image of their face. The illustrations are lovely and simple and make this an excellent choice to share with babies and toddlers who love to look at faces. My seven month old was quite captivated by it and kept chuckling as we turned the pages and gazed at the new faces (she also tried to eat it, so I wish this came in a board book format).

There is a great mix of artists here (male, female, contemporary, old masters, a variety of national origins), meaning it’s not just a list of old Eurpopean white dudes. There’s even a nod to Pizzoli’s friend and artist Elena Tommasi-Ferroni who has illustrated a few of Pizzol’s books include the beautiful Fatou and the Kora. Which makes this perfect for older children, it can spark conversations about all these different artists. Blessedly Pizzoli has included a two-page spread at the back that gives the full name, dates, and one or two sentence description of each artist. “B is for Basquiat” led my seven year old to pull out our copy of Radiant Child and of course a quick Google search showed various pieces by each of the artists she was curious about.

This is yet another book that’s appropriate for classroom libraries, school libraries, home libraries, and public libraries alike. I could see classrooms using this book in an art center or even with a self-portrait project or station. For small collections skip the commercialized and terrible ABC books and get one or two that open up conversation around the content and not the letters.

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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31

Oct
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Ma Llorona by Maya Gonzalez

On 31, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ma LloronaMa Llorona by Maya Gonzalez

From Goodreads: In times filled with terror and torment, one woman’s haunting grief rises from beyond to become the people’s howl in the dark. Sometimes a heartache is so great, it belongs to everyone. Sometimes a healing is so powerful it holds within it the spark to change everything….if we’re ready. A queer reclamation of the classic Mexican ghost story, La Llorona, spanning from MesoAmerica 1500 to present day San Francisco.

I have liked every book I have gotten my hands on from Reflection Press, but this one was just beautiful. I do not think I will be able to do it justice in describing and reviewing it, but here goes.

It’s definitely a ghost story, but not in the way I have typically thought of ghost stories. There is no creep factor, no horror (except for the horror of genocide which is touched on but not dwelt on and isn’t really the focus of the ghost part of this story), and it’s probably not the La Llorona you’ve heard of.

At its heart, Ma Llorona is a love story. Texocamiltic and Cualtzin live in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica where the two women fall in love and are planning a life together. But just as Cualtzin embarks on her last journey with her cohort of warriors, Texocamiltic is raped by a “pale man”, who the reader recognizes as the first wave of colonizers. In the absence of her Love and broken by the trauma, Texocamiltic transforms into Chocatiuh, a weeping woman, has twins and ultimately is drawn into the river with the babies where they all drown. Time passes and she returns as a blue light, tied to the river. Eventually she meets Cualtzin as an old woman who encourages her to explore the world using the rivers as passage. She spends the next centuries exploring, sleeping, and seeking out Cualtzin on the other side. Centuries later she meets a girl in San Francisco and her spirit helps Xochitl find her voice to help others still impacted by colonization and oppression.

While love is certainly a piece of this story, it is not the syrupy commercialized love we tend to think of or see portrayed in romance novels. This is a love across time, between women, but also between the universe, the land, and the people. People who were and are brutalized and marginalized. The love and love story do not end or even completely revolve around the self-absorbed love between to people infatuated with one another (not that Texocamiltic and Cualtzin are).

This book is perfect for showing readers that love doesn’t necessarily mean pining away for your soulmate or spending eternity lamenting the life you didn’t get together. It shows how many forms love can take and how true love between people can empower one person to go beyond themselves even when they are not physically alive. While Texocamiltic is heart broken over the loss of the life she thought she would have with Cualtzin, she doesn’t spend eternity mourning that. They do get a love scene, but it’s ancillary to the rest of the story of how they go into the world with their love for each other. The story also shows how folklore/mythology can be a powerful tool in activism. How it lends hope and light in dark times, brings comfort when things are bleak, and keeps community alive when white supremacy is trying to eradicate it.

Gonzalez is also clearly a poet as the language in the book is so poetically beautiful. She isn’t wordy, but you see the story, characters, and world so clearly through her use of language. The spare passages bring to mind such rich detail. It’s a book you will want to re-read passages from just to roll the words around in your mind feeling their textures and exploring their layers.

This is definitely a YA novel, but I do believe you could have it in a middle school library. Just know the story starts with an off-page rape followed by a suicide. I personally don’t have a problem talking about those things in age-appropriate terms with younger kids (my own, specifically), but your mileage may vary depending on your community. Don’t let the fear of parents or complaints deter you, but also know its in here. Do put this book on your shelves. Hand sell it to kids who like history, light romance, mythology/ghost stories, or are budding activists. It is also fairly short and a quick read so reluctant readers, who may struggle with mechanics, language, or have struggled to find themselves reflected in pages of books, will have no problem jumping in and connecting. Be sure to have copies in the classroom and on school library shelves. I would even suggest using this as a book to study in English class. Ditch one of those books written by a white man for this beautiful, rich ghosty-love story.

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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24

Oct
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Ghosts in the Castle by Zetta Elliott

On 24, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Ghosts in the CastleThe Ghosts in the Castle by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: Zaria has dreamed of England for as long as she can remember—according to the novels she’s read, everything magical happens there! When her grandfather suffers a stroke, Zaria and her mother head to London to help care for him. Zaria reads fantastic tales to her grandfather every afternoon, and she’s thrilled to discover that her cousin Winston shares her love of wands, wizards, and mythical creatures. But Zaria soon finds that life in London is actually quite ordinary—until she goes on a day trip to nearby Windsor Castle. There Zaria meets two extraordinary ghosts who need help finding their way back to the African continent they once called home.

My daughter is loving this series so much. We quickly read through the first three books at bedtime and will be getting the fourth soon. This one was especially timely because we read it just at the time of the royal wedding (something we were not at all keeping up on, except that it was on the news) and I was able to point out the connection of Windsor Castle to her. It made finding pictures of it really easy.

That being said, this has nothing to do with a wedding or British royalty. Not really. I absolutely loved getting to meet Zaria, Tariq’s sister from the first book. She’s a really awesome kid and very kind. Zaria takes to her nerdy, smart, and slightly awkward cousin Winston and the two have an experience of a lifetime. The ghosts make this a great read for October, but the puzzle and history make it an interesting read for any time of the year.

I shouldn’t be, but I am always surprised at how well Elliott can jump between types of children’s literature. It’s certainly something other authors are not nearly so successful with. Here Elliott has written a chapter book that most fourth and even some third graders should be able to tackle. I recall the the first two books in the series being slightly easier and shorter than this one which is perfect. As kids improve through reading the series levels up with them. It also makes for a great read aloud (they all do, actually). The plot isn’t overly complicated and the books aren’t too long so it holds the interest and imagination of kids just learning to listen to chapter books.

I know kids love those Magic Tree House books, but they are awful- inaccurate history, THE WORST dialog ever, insipid characters. If you are looking for somewhere to start with read alouds for your kids or students this is a great series. You will enjoy them as much as your kids. They’re full of likable characters, interesting and important history, and magic. If you’re a librarian looking to add to your chapter book collection, please, please, please add these. It’s okay to have those tedious chapter books written for reading practice (although the inaccurate history is issue), but let’s diversify those shelves in terms of the representation AND the writing quality.

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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18

Oct
2018

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Gender Wheel by Maya Christina Gonzalez

On 18, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Gender WheelThe Gender Wheel: A Story About Bodies and Gender written and illustrated by Matthew and Maya Christina Gonzalez

From Goodreads: This body positive book is a powerful opportunity for a supportive adult and child to see a wide range of bodies, understand the origins of the current binary gender system, how we can learn from nature to see the truth that has always existed and revision a new story that includes room for all bodies and genders. The Gender Wheel offers a queer centric, holistic framework of radical gender inclusion in a kid-friendly way for the budding activists who will change our world. This is our world!

You can’t claim to want to diversify your shelves if you aren’t also including books about gender diversity. Fortunately there are a few good resources out there to help you with that, including this gem from Maya Gonzalez and Reflection Press.

Let’s be clear sexuality and gender are NOT the same. The book does talk about the outside and inside of bodies, but sexuality is not a part of this discussion.* Gonzalez does a phenomenal job explaining in child-friendly and appropriate language that people and bodies come in all different forms. She begins by decolonizing the idea of gender. She very bluntly calls out the history of European colonization that set up the damaging girl-boy binary of gender. She addresses it, notes that it is just plain wrong, and then moves on to affirm and explain that gender is fluid, infinite, and natural using a circle.

Gonzalez has published two different versions of this text, one with naked bodies and one with clothed bodies.She has drawn some children with bodies that look ambiguous and that have parts that match what we think of as male and female but aren’t. If at all possible, include the one with naked bodies on your shelves. Nakedness is not something to be ashamed of or feared and teaching children to be ashamed of, to hate, and be ignorant of naked bodies, especially their own, does them a major disservice. DO NOT let this fall into some sort of cisgendered obsession with body parts, but know it can help kids grasp these concepts, especially younger kids who need more concrete explanations. I know for my own daughter it was helpful to understand that there is a lot of in between with genitalia. That being said, plenty of schools may not be comfortable or able to have naked kids on their shelves, so you will have to take that into consideration.

In addition to the outside circle which deals with how a body looks and feels on the outside, Gonzalez also includes an inner wheel which addresses both inside parts (body parts that can’t be seen) and how a person feels about their gender and identifies themselves. This includes pronouns and labels. The two wheels can move separately so that the body does not always match the same pronoun, label, or feeling/identity. This is brilliant. Children will grasp this concept. For young audiences you can hop over to the Reflection Press website and download the wheel from their free resources and actually make it to use as a prop.

There is one more VERY important piece to this book that must be mentioned. The Gender Wheel is part of a larger set or series that includes a wonderful simple, easy reader and a workbook. Gonzalez has developed a curriculum around this that would be wonderful for schools and libraries to have available for their teachers and families. But her work was stolen by some other authors who are published by a larger publishing house. You can and should read about this here on Gonzalez’ blog. BUT BE SURE TO SUPPORT HER AND HER WORK BY PURCHASING THIS BOOK AND SERIES AND NOT THE PLAGIARIZED ONE.

So, to diversify your bookshelves look to The Gender Wheel and the Gender Now curriculum.

*To be clear, you need books that deal with sexuality on your shelves too and it also needs to be an ongoing discussion. It can also be intertwined with gender, but for this book it is not. Sexuality can be a hard sell in libraries so don’t shy away from this book on account of that. But if you are shying away from books that tackle potentially controversial topics unpack that feeling and go read my post about how that kind of thought process upholds white supremacy culture.

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