By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Sep 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Enter into the life of Chisom, a young Nigerian boy, who repeatedly gets bullied for his cultural identity in a Western Society. Read along as he discovers that his strength is actually found in his family upbringing and in embracing his cultural values. The story of Chisom teaches children across the world that self-love is key to overcoming bullies and other interpersonal obstacles experienced in life’s journey.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher Melanin Origins in exchange for an honest review.
Where was this book a year ago when I was building the character education collection in the library? This was exactly the kind of book that we needed! It tackles bullying, cultural and self pride, and standing up for yourself and others.
Chisom appears to be growing up in the United States, but he makes it clear that his family is Igbo and shares some of his culture with the reader. His name has cultural significance, his parents are called by the traditional naming convention, Papa and Mama Chisom. Mama Chisom is apparently a good cook and, darn it, every book about Nigerian families features jollof rice and it makes me hungry every time. Chisom also wears traditional Igbo clothes, which eventually gets him in trouble with the school bully.
Billy Bob is a large red-headed boy who wears cowboy boots and teases everyone. He decides to start picking on Chisom calling him names and making fun of his clothing. Chisom is, understandably, really upset by this. After talking to his mom about it and reflecting on the pride his parents instilled in him he decides to stand up to the bully. The next day at school when Billy Bob starts in on Chisom, he tells Billy Bob to stop and explains that Billy Bob’s cowboy boots set him apart as much as Chisom’s Isiagu. He tells Billy Bob that everyone deserves respect and then, best of all, calls him in asking him to be a champion by giving up bullying.
The book is clearly made to encourage children to stand up for what is right. Chisom is a sweet boy with a loving and supportive family and he makes a great character for kids to connect with and root for. Certainly the book is important for all children to show that just because we look and dress differently doesn’t mean we deserve to be bullied. But I think this book is most important for children from immigrant families and black children who are often not allowed to feel pride in their heritage and families. Moreover, the book provides a good jumping off point for teachers and parents to talk about how to stand up for yourself and others. I think there are a lot of children out there that want to stand up to bullying and teasing, but don’t know where to start. Chisom gives them some good ideas, particularly the importance of calling people in (instead of simply calling them out) and language around those ideas. The ending may involve a bit of wish fulfillment, but it’s good for kids to see happy endings to these situations so they can keep a positive mindset.
Pair this with the charming The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts, Red by Jan de Kinder for a storytime about standing up against bullying. Well worth adding to school library collections, particularly if you have a character education curriculum or anti-bullying campaign. Also well worth adding to classroom libraries for those first few weeks when you work on building community.
Purchase copies here (not affiliate link):
Amazon (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
So, the author of this book came across my review and was very moved by it. I may have a longer post about the importance of supporting these small press and self published authors in a few days, but his response has made my conviction stronger to keep reviewing and sharing these types of books. If the traditional publishing industry won’t publish these books and won’t allow #ownvoices authors into their club, then I for one think we need to look elsewhere.
I still stand behind what I said in this original review, the book is well worth having on your shelf. Show kids the important historical figures that don’t get seen very often, if ever, because they are black, Asian, disabled, etc. We need a broader swath of people to study, so kids can build pride in their cultures and so they can learn about the amazing lives and accomplishments of incredible people like Ida B. Wells. Since originally publishing this, my daughter still asks to read this book and we have since talked more about Wells’ career as a journalist and as an advocate against lynching. It has been a powerful entree into a difficult piece of history for both of us. I hope other parents and librarians purchase this book and enjoy it as much as we do.
Power in My Pen: A Snippet in the Life of Ida B. Wells written by Louie T. McClain III, edited by Francis W. Minikon, illustrated byM. Ridho Mentarie
From Goodreads: Step into the world of Ida B. Wells as she uses her life experiences and obstacles as motivation to achieve many firsts in editing and journalism in the United States of America and abroad. Read along as she flourishes in the wake of family tragedy and ever changing life situations. “Power in My Pen” encourages penmanship, free thought, and historical lessons from a highly influential leader in the early 1900’s. The strong intelligent woman we know as Ida B. Wells proved, no matter who you are, you can share your message and your truth to the world through the power of the pen.
I have to admit I expected there to a Message with a capital “m” in the book. There is, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Wells’ life was far more the focus and as a parent reading the book with my child I was able to draw the message out through her life and work. She sums it up at the end succinctly, but we were able look back over her life and see her living it.
The book quickly passed the high interest test. The first night it was on our shelf my daughter asked to read it and she has dug it out of our considerable bedtime book stack several times since.
The book is clearly geared toward young audiences. The text is simple, but still includes some good vocabulary and syntax. It does simplify her life, but in a way that makes it much more accessible to younger kids. They get a sense of who Ida B. Wells was and what she accomplished without being bogged down in dates (in my experience these are totally meaningless to kids under 5 or 6) or timelines or tons of details. We’ve tried some biographies at home and not many have been chosen for a second read through (exceptions being this one, Jane Goodall, Misty Copeland and Trombone Shorty).
Personally, the name Ida B. Wells rang a bell, but I couldn’t have told you who exactly she was. The book clued me in and made me curious, though, and I started looking her up for my own edification. We did look up her Wikipedia article right after reading it the first time to get a little more information about her. I could see using the book in the classroom or library with a biography project. It’s perfect for getting a good overview and piquing interest.
The illustrations are charming with a happy smiling Ida B. Wells (her actual photographs make her look incredibly dour, like most photos from that era). I thought it was an interesting choice to show Ida and the other characters in more modern clothing and settings. At first I wasn’t sure about it, but I realized my daughter was connecting better with the characters on the page. I think this is one more piece that helps the book appeal and click with the younger target audience.
My one complaint is that the book is a thin paperback. It’s going to get lost on the shelf! To solve this I will be sure it will sit face out as long as possible, but hardcovers still tend to fair better. The books are not terribly expensive and the company has been running a deal with a buy-one-get-one for a the past month or so. There are a number of series of biographies that are geared toward young audiences (Ordinary People Change the World, for example) that are also very popular. If you have an extra $10 in your budget this is well worth adding. Plus it adds an important African American woman to our collections who doesn’t usually see elementary school library shelves (or high school for that matter).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When the girl, Silence, is sent by the trees to save Yesterday, she doesn’t know what her task is, only that it is important. Returning to the village that cast her out, Silence recognizes her purpose: to join the dead with the living in an act that celebrates their memory.
I had to read through this book a couple times before it started to click with me. It seems to start rather abruptly:
“When the people of the village sent the girl into the forest, it was the trees as ancient as breath who took her in and raised her. She loved living with them, but now they were asking her to leave.”
I kept wondering, who is this girl? Why was she abandoned? How old was she when she was abandoned? If you keep reading, however, the backstory begins to fill in and my questions were eventually answered. The language in the story is full of flourishes and smilies. Again, this was something that required more than one read through to appreciate and absorb.
The illustrations are beautiful. As you can see from the cover they colors are rich and vibrant. Light plays an important part in the story and the use of the warm color palette really emphasizes that. It also contrasts nicely with the lush, cool world of the trees that Silence comes from.
I’m not sure if it’s the kind of book that a child would pick up on their own to read, but I do think it would work very well in a family that has a celebration of their dead (Dia de los Muertos, Samhain, All Soul’s Day, etc.). I think it could work very well in a classroom setting, too, where there can be discussion about the meaning of the story and how it works as a fable or parable without using a religious story. I definitely think it would be better suited to older children because of the complexity of the language. I’m still not sure I’ll be buying it. I would need the right teacher to champion it and read it to their class and I’m not sure I have that person.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jul 2017 | 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 faire.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: If you had one chance to achieve your dream, what would you do? Long ago in Persia lived Barbad the musician, who dreamed of playing before the king. Blocked by a jealous rival, Barbad’s solution was simple: hide up in a tree and wait for the king to arrive!
This was a pretty gentle story. There weren’t really any great dramatics or adventures, but that was just fine. Barbad’s trick of befriending the gardener and hiding in a tree to play for the king is rather clever and even humorous.
Something was off in the timing of the story, though. There were pages with only one or two sentences and followed by pages with long paragraphs. The sentences would have long periods of time passing and then the paragraphs would focus in on a short event, which sounds like it would make sense, but felt more like it needed better editing and a little artistic license used to compress the story. It made the timeline harder to follow and felt unnecessarily disjointed.
I was also a bit turned off by the ending. Barbad is vying for a position held by another musician, Sarkash, and the king only keeps one musician in the palace. Admittedly Sarkash is a jerk. He prevents Barbad from playing for the king for a whole year, but he does it because it means he’ll be out of his job. The thing is, couldn’t the king have kept both? I know, I know that isn’t how things always work out. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical Barbad and Sarkash were a lot more nuanced than this simple story lets on. They’re here in this story to stand in as metaphors and lessons. Still. Barbad is not exactly a shining example either. He wants to be the king’s musician so he can live in the palace. Sure, he’ll send money back to his family but the book doesn’t say they’re in dire need, just that it was customary to send money home if you were making it. It makes his motive sound more selfish than selfless or artistically driven. He also thinks he’s better than Sarkash and when he finally gets his audience with the king he tattles on him for preventing him from seeing the king. One of the final scenes has Sarkash out on his ass (no, really! his donkey), riding away from the palace, turned out by the king. I couldn’t help but think, why didn’t Barbad choose to be a bigger person and not rat out Sarkash. It felt kind of petty. It also made me kind of hope that there’s a story somewhere where Barbad finds himself in the same position and realizing that maybe Sarkash wasn’t such a bad guy, just one who was afraid to lose his job. Maybe I’m reading way too much into this children’s book.
The illustrations are quite lovely with lots of bright birds and lush foliage. The contrast of the greens of the garden with the yellows and oranges of the sky and lighting are stunning. The lines of the illustration really draw your eye around the pages too. The text was long, but engaging enough. My own daughter sat through the story without complaint. I would still say it’s better for first or second grade over preschool. You could even read it up into third or fourth, although it might be a bit simplistic for older readers.
The story sounds, from the author’s note, like it is a well known Persian tale based on a historical character. For that reason alone I would consider purchasing this, but we have a surprising number of stories from Persian and Iran already so I think I will pass for now. If you are needing to add to or start a collection of Persian tales I would certainly consider this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this classical updated children’s story taken place in the beautiful land of Africa. Little Red Riding Hood is slightly cautious when her grandmother looks suspiciously like a sly Panther.
I came across UrbanToons on Instagram a couple months ago and was excited to see that they have published a number of retold fairy tales. Generally I have mixed feelings about fairy tales, both as a parent and as an educator. On the one hand they are referenced throughout our culture and do carry messages, on the other hand they tend to be Western European (the most common being Grimms from Germany) and are often watered down to be considered “suitable” for children today.
The UrbanToons Little Red Riding Hood is the story we are all familiar with and in terms of fairy tales, one that we don’t see censored too much (except for omitting the woodsman cutting the wolf open). I was pleased by how much I enjoyed this one. While the description above says the book is set in Africa, the actual book specifies a country (Kenya) and a tribe (Maasai). I think this is incredibly important when setting books in Africa with African characters. Africa is not a country or a monolith and there is incredible variety in environment, culture, and people across the massive continent. Much like Debbie Reese encourages parents and educators to look for tribal specificity and nationhood in books with Native Nations, I think we need to do the same with African cultures and countries.
I loved that instead of a wolf Little Red is approached by a panther. The girl also has a name, not something she has in the original story as far as I know, which is refreshing because most fairy tale girls are pretty passive and have names that refer to their looks (Snow White) or their situation (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella). I think that if you are going to share fairy tales with kids this would be a great retelling to have on hand. If you do a study of this particular tale or of fairy tales in general, read it along with the fantastic retelling Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood.
I definitely recommend adding this to your fairy/folk tale collection. That is a collection that desperately needs more diversity, either with retellings of with original tales respectfully told. It tends to center Western European fairy tales and would benefit from branching out. There is a lot of wonderful mythology and storytelling out there, why not bring some of it into the library and classroom?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: An ancient civilization. An underwater world. And a new quest for the StoneKeeper! Ellis, Toro and Freddye are at it again in the 2nd book in the Ellis Monroe Series Early Reader Chapter Book! Join them as they explore a hidden world, face more nasty Bugabols and discover that there are many kinds of superpowers!
A solid sequel to Ellis and the Magic Mirror. These books do not have overly complex plots and are not long and that is perfect. I cannot emphasize how important this is for kids not ready to make the jump into older chapter books. In The Hidden Cave, Ellis, his sister Freddye, and his best friend Toro travel to India with their parents. When they arrive they head off to a newly discovered site of ruins that are rather mysterious. As the children head off to explore they find a secret entrance to an underwater world, opened to them because of Ellis’ power as a Stonekeeper. Once in the underwater world, Ellis, Freddye, and Toro encounter more bugabols (troll-like creatures) and Ellis discovers someone who can give him more information about being a Stonekeeper. While there Ellis learns a valuable lesson about the importance of kindness and empathy even when it is not being given to you.
While this book could stand alone, it will make a lot more sense if you’ve read the first book. There is a very quick recap that gives enough information, but it might take a stronger reader to really pick up on the parts that carry over. Ellis and Freddye, who are clearly African American, have well-educated university professor parents. This representation is particularly important to have in your collection if most of your books about black families show them in poverty, struggling, or working class.
If there were things I would have liked to see to make the book a little stronger in terms of diversity, I would say we need more specificity about where they are in India and we could see more influence of Indian culture and history. But you have to strike a balance between how much an emerging chapter book reader can take and get through with adding a lot more to the story. While I think that these additions would have made the book better for adults evaluating it, I am not sure it would have made it a better book for emerging readers. Kids need these quick and relatively easy books to grab their attention and encourage them to read more. As with the first book, it’s a thin paperback with no title on the spine making it a good candidate for facing out on the shelf or staying on display.
These books make a great addition to library and classroom collections that serve kids making the transition from easy readers to chapter books. They feature a diverse cast and fun fantasy plots that move quickly enough to keep early readers engaged while giving them a taste of the genre and what books can offer in terms of adventure. Parents and teachers will appreciate the subtle messages in the books that encourage readers to be brave and empathetic.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I went back and reread this book a few months ago and it was just as enjoyable the second time around. I kept it out on display at the library and had at least one taker that I remember (and I think one of the second grade teachers hand sold it to a reader, too?). At any rate it’s well worth having on your shelf. I’m rerunning this today because Monday I will be run a review of the sequel that I just discovered! Pretty excited about that. I also bought copies of both this book and the second to read out loud to my daughter since she’s into chapter books at bedtime.
Ellis and the Magic Mirror written by Cerece Rennie Murphy, pictures by Gregory Garay
From Goodreads: Ellis Monroe has always been curious about the world. When his father brings home an ancient mirror with the power to reveal the truth about the people and things around him, Ellis begins to see the world in a whole new way.
But things get more than a little strange when Ellis takes the mirror to school. While playing with it on the playground with his best friend, Toro Quispe, Ellis discovers that someone – or something – is hiding out at Harriet Tubman Elementary and trying to stop children from learning. Determined to solve the new mystery, Ellis, Toro, and his little sister, Freddye go on a secret mission to find out the truth about the troublesome Buddy Cruster and stop whatever he and his friends have planned.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Ellis and the Magic Mirror brought Akata Witch to mind. I think it was the group of friends banding together and working together paired with the magic. This was another good self published chapter book. The story was action packed and fast moving (often important in early chapter books). The cast is, as you can see by the cover, diverse.
There is a strong theme of friendship and working together in the story that I enjoyed, too. It showed the friends teaming up to both figure out the mystery around what the mirror was showing them and dealing with the trolls they discover. I also liked the sibling relationship between Ellis and Freddye. It was healthy. They bicker a bit, but the two clearly care for each other and work together well despite an age gap. I’m personally really tired of books with siblings that are at each other’s throats constantly (although I understand there are families where that is the case).
So a lot of times there are stories that I feel could be resolved more easily if children would just bring the problem to the attention of an adult. Particularly when things get dangerous. But then the kids just don’t for what appears to be no other reason than to drive the plot. I know that can be realistic to an extent, but I think it also runs counter to what we tell children to do in threatening situations. Ellis finds himself in a situation like that here, except the book gives two really good reasons for not telling adults. First, there is magic involved and it’s unlikely an adult would believe the kids. Second, Ellis has stolen the mirror from his dad and doesn’t want him to know that he has the mirror. I infinitely prefer stories where there are solid reasons for not telling an adult. I’m not sure if that’s a preference for me as an adult or someone who is very literal, but I am much more likely to willingly suspend my belief in what is going on and fall into the world of the story.
Once again the trim size a little large on this one and I wish it was a bit smaller. Also I don’t know if self published titles have this option, but most of them seem not to have the title and author printed on the spine. That means once they are shelved in the library they tend to disappear onto the shelf. Thicker books don’t disappear as much, but I try to leave them out on display as often as possible so they don’t get lost.
In all, a book worth putting on your shelf if you need a little magic and friendship in the early chapter book section.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Life isn’t easy when your big sister is an annoying cat and your moms can’t understand a word you say. But that doesn’t stop Rumplepimple from saving the day in a most unusual way. Find out how a car ride transforms a naughty terrier into a grocery store hero.
I bought this earlier in the year to put in my Read-T0-A-Dog basket in the library. I bought my own copy a week or two ago and my daughter has been asking to read it frequenly ever since.
I love that this book has a lot to talk about in it. The most obvious is how Rumplepimple stands up to a bully. When a little boy has snatched his sister’s blanket from her in the grocery store, Rumplepimple hears her cry and rushes in to give the blanket back. When I read this with my daughter we talked about how Rumplepimple saved the day and did a good thing by intervening when something wrong was happening.
Of course this is not what his mom sees. After he slips out the car door and rushes into the store he loses his mom. She ultimately finds him peering in the meat department case licking his lips and assumes he has been up to no good. This is also a great conversation starter about doing the right thing even when no one is looking and even if you don’t get recognized for it. It can also lead to discussing doing the right thing even if you get in trouble for it.
While all this is well and good, my daughter and students loved it because Rumplepimple is a cute dog. The story sounds like the thoughts that go through a dog’s head and are quite funny. Or at least what I imagine does. I love the nod to The Farside comics with the “Blah, blah, blah, Rumplepimple” line when he’s being scolded in the car after being recaptured.
I have a few design issues, but they’re minor and neither my students nor my daughter noticed them. I wish more of the illustrations filled the page instead of the spot illustrations. There’s a lot of white space in the book and it feels sparse. I think it could have been a couple pages shorter too, but again it’s all minor.
If you want a cute dog story (don’t all kids?), then this book is well worth adding to your collection. It’s paperback so get the book tape out. Rumplepimple has two moms and, while their relationship is not specified, I think it’s implied that they are in a relationship. This is a great book to get some incidental diversity into your storytimes and collections!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This one appears to have gone out of print or is at least not available through Amazon. If you wouls like a copy you can buy it here through Kitaab World. I highly recommend ordering through them anyways. They have an amazing selection of books dealing with Islam and South Asian culture. Again, I can’t recommend enough getting more books about Muslims into all parts of your collection. This is a particularly lovely biography with wonderful illustrations and good information.
The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina written by Fatima Sharafeddine, illustrated by Intelaq Mohammed Ali
Form Goodreads: Born in Persia more than a thousand years ago, Ibn Sina was one of the greatest thinkers of his time — a philosopher, scientist and physician who made significant discoveries, especially in the field of medicine, and wrote more than one hundred books. As a child, Ibn Sina was extremely bright, a voracious reader who loved to learn and was fortunate to have the best teachers. He memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and completed his medical studies at sixteen. He spent his life traveling, treating the sick, seeking knowledge through research, and writing about his discoveries. He came up with new theories in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy and education. His most famous work is The Canon of Medicine, a collection of books that were used for teaching in universities across the Islamic world and Europe for centuries.
So I wasn’t totally captivated by the text in this one. It was in first person which I understand brings the reader closer to the subject, but it also made for a few awkward places. In looking further at the book I discovered that it was originally published in Arabic, which might explain the awkwardness. Things lost in translation.
Otherwise, Ibn Sina made me feel totally inadequate. NBD. He just finished his medical studies at 16. I mean I know it wasn’t like medical school these days, but still. 16. Clearly the man was a genius. The story of his accomplishments was really fascinating. He did a lot and was very interested in life long learning. He studied philosophy, education and even advocated for what we might today consider respectful parenting and teaching.
I wish there had been a little more historical context. He moved around a lot as an adult, but there was only a brief mention that one of the cities he lived in was frequently fighting with another. I think kids in the US will not be particularly familiar with the geography or history of the area or era and need more information. But I also understand that it could potentially make the book unwieldy and boring. A longer more detailed author’s note might have sufficed. I did appreciate that Sharafeddine noted that Islamic contributions to the world are rarely taught in US schools and that was a driving factor in bringing out this book.
I really like the illustrations. They’re done on a speckled brownish paper that makes the colors pop and is different from the usual white paper. The lines are so soft and the shading is spectacular. Everyone has these huge half moon eyes that make them kind of darling and friendly. The illustrations were done in colored pencil and are so saturated and rich.
I’ll definitely be buying this as our budget allows this year. We need more Islamic biographies and I don’t think we have anything on the Islamic Golden Age. The illustrations will entice my students to pick it up. My complaints about the text aren’t significant enough for me to not purchase it.