By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Ramadan is one of the most special months of the Islamic year, when Muslims pray, fast, and help those in need. Whitman’s lyrical story, with luminous illustrations by Sue Williams, serves as an ideal introduction to Ramadan.
This made a great bedtime story for Ramadan and is an especially good book for young audiences. The text is simple, poetic and rhythmic. There isn’t a lot of explaining of the holiday which makes it perfect for Muslim families to share with their children. The story goes through celebrating all the fun things that happen during Ramadan like visiting friends and family, making sweets, and reflecting.
The illustrations are beautiful and simple. They all feel very calm and soothing which is why it made a great bedtime story. Of course many Muslim children will be staying up late for the next month so it might be better prior to Ramadan or used at nap time. You can watch the moon wax and wane through the month which adds a nice touch to tracking the holiday.
I also really appreciated that the settings of the illustrations could be just about anywhere in the US. While many of the women are wearing hijab, the people are dressed in everyday clothes (skirts, t-shirt, jeans), as opposed to looking more foreign in “traditional” Arab garb or historical clothing. In other words this doesn’t make Muslims seem like an other, but like they are your neighbors and school teachers and fellow students.
I couldn’t quite figure out if Sylvia Whitman is herself Muslim, but her children (according to her blog) are Arab-American so I suspect she has some perspective on Muslim culture (although I know not all Arabs are Muslim or even religious) and holidays. All in all a sweet book for any family to share at bedtime to celebrate Ramadan.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I bought this through a LaunchGood campaign while looking for good Ramadan books that were not informational, but more story-like for the library. The book comes in a set with a plush, a plate, and a deck of activity cards. There is information about Ramadan in the book, but it’s clearly information directed at Muslim children. The set was designed to give Muslim children a pride and interest in Ramadan. (Seriously watch the video on their website, it’s both painful and hilarious.)
The book comes with a plush date palm, activity cards, and a plate for serving dates to break the fast. When the box showed up on my porch my daughter was over the moon excited. She wanted to immediately read the book, so we did. And then she wanted to start all over again. And again. And again. She carried the Rafiq doll around with her for days and she started serving pretend tea using the plate. She also wanted to start doing the activity cards that day.
You guys, we’re vaguely Christian and German and the Germans DO Christmas. We have an advent calendar with activities each day. We celebrate St. Nicholas Night (sans Black Peter). We even make a point to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas and then celebrate Epiphany. My point is, there is build up and lots of celebration around Christmas for us. And yet my daughter barely gives two poops. But she is stoked to celebrate Ramadan because of this book.
The story is charming. It’s got information that will rope in Muslim children, but will also make sense (mostly) to non-Muslim children. Ramadan and the joy that surrounds it is introduced by Rafiq, the date palm, Najjah the adorable sheep, and Asal the bee. Rafiq introduces what happens during Ramadan and what to expect. She then meets Najjah who talks about the history of the holiday and the importance of prayer and reading the Quran. Finally they meet Asal who covers the foods across the Muslim world. All three are very excited to celebrate this holiday. As I said, this would certainly make sense to and explain Ramadan to a non Muslim child, but that isn’t the intended audience. Muslim children who are just learning about what Ramadan means to their religion will capture the joy and excitement that surrounds the month.
The illustrations are darling if a bit muted with pastel colors. I had to buy a whole new set for the library because there is NO WAY my daughter is giving this one up. Ramadan starts today (if I’m not mistaken??) which is why I chose to feature the book today and you can be sure we will be doing the first activity card today and reading the story tonight.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.
Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.
I actually picked this up to see if it might work for our lower school biography collection and I think it might. The length isn’t bad (we have longer, drier biographies on the shelf) and there isn’t anything particularly shocking in it (Bly is asked at one point if she is a nightwalker, but it’s such a brief mention that it will probably pass most younger kids by). Really, though, the book is just so gripping I can totally see some of my older students getting sucked in. We have a picture book biography of Nellie and she’s a fascinating female character that rather broke with convention in her time. I think this would be a good place to go from that picture book if the kids are interested in learning more.
There is the issue of the care of the “insane”. This is Nellie’s reason for becoming a madwoman. She wanted to write an expose on how female patients were treated in the facilities that “cared” for women that were deemed insane. These women were abused. Many were not insane at all, but did not fit within societal expectation. It’s not a pretty scene that Nellie shows the world and while this is clearly written for children, it’s not a pretty scene that readers will discover. Kids will love to feel the outrage that Nellie felt over the conditions she reported on. Lucky for Nellie she was always going to get out. The book could certainly open up a lot of conversations about treatment of the mentally ill (something we are better at to be sure, but are still sadly lacking in) and unfair restrictions and expectations placed on women.
There is a lot about Nellie Bly in this book. Information about her childhood and her career. Nellie herself struggled with the low expectations for women of her era. She chaffed against them, but she was also able to rise to the challenge and find ways to make a living and buck convention. She was really quite interesting and I’m sure her story will fascinate any reader who picks this book up. A good one for an upper elementary and middle school biography collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The Haunted History Museum
The Case of the Missing Museum Archives
The Case of the Portrait Vandal
The Case of the Stolen Sculpture
I bought and read three of these little mysteries. It’s such a tricky balance to strike in these early chapter books, trying to get enough story and character in there that it’s well written without making it too complex and long for kids who are just beginning to read. I personally am fine with books that lack a bit in an involved mystery and character development. I know kids who read these types of stories and enjoy them. I also happened to be one of those kids. I think these mysteries really do a good job of striking that balance. The diversity in ethnicity of the kids comes off as a little shallow, but I think for this type of books it’s just fine. Kids in my library are just happy to see themselves on the cover and read about a kid that they can picture looking like them.
Book number two (the one pictured at the left) is especially important right now. It’s a girl in a hijab who is not a terrorist. She also happens to love space travel and math. STEM girl for the win. The story is wee bit far fetched as the father is about to be fired for something that he didn’t do and the evidence that he lost some important documents is shaky at best. But the characters are likable and the story is fun if you put aside your grown up sensibilities.
When I bought these there were only four that I found on Amazon. On Goodreads it appears there are a few more that feature the same kids in new mysteries which if you have a population that likes mysteries I highly recommend getting. The original Nate the Great was pretty easy, but some of the later chapter books he is in get a lot longer and more wordy. I would say these could replace those longer Nate the Greats of be a place to move to afterward.
I highly recommend these for beginning chapter book collections. They’re a fun introduction to mystery novels and they feature a diverse cast of characters.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The City Kids series by Zetta Elliot
The Phoenix on Barkely Street
From Goodreads: Best friends Carlos and Tariq love their block, but Barkley Street has started to change. The playground has been taken over by older boys, which leaves Carlos and Tariq with no place to call their own. They decide to turn the yard of an abandoned brownstone into their secret hang-out spot. Carlos and Tariq soon discover, however, that the overgrown yard is already occupied by an ancient phoenix! When the Pythons try to claim the yard for their gang, the magical bird gives the friends the courage to make a stand against the bullies who threaten to ruin their beloved neighborhood.
From Goodreads: Summer vacation has just begun and Dayshaun wants to spend Saturday morning playing his new video game. But Dayshaun’s mother has other plans: she volunteers at a nearby community garden and that means Dayshaun has to volunteer, too. When Dayshaun puts on his grandfather’s grubby old gardening hat, something unexpected happens-the hands of time turn backward and Dayshaun finds himself in the free Black community of Weeksville during the summer of 1863! While helping the survivors of the New York City Draft Riots, Dayshaun meets a frail old man who entrusts him with a precious family heirloom. But will this gift help Dayshaun find his way back to the 21st century?
So far this is a great series for readers who are ready for a little more text, but aren’t ready for full blown chapter books yet. In other words, they’re transitional. And totally engaging. I’m not normally one for science fiction/fantasy in my books, but I know a lot of kids who are and, as I’ve found this year, there aren’t a lot of those books out there for them unless they are strong readers (most fantasy books seem to be damn thick books with small print, even in the middle grade section). Even fewer of the books available across the beginning chapter book market feature diverse kids or kids who live in urban settings (we didn’t all grow up on a farm or in a large house, myself included). There is a lot here to appeal to kids at the second/third grade level.
In The Phoenix on Barkley Street kids who are all about being green will love that the kids clean up and repurpose a vacant building’s yard. The bullying theme will resonate with many children who, at the beginning chapter book age, are very attuned to social justice. Parents looking for a book that promotes community and friendship will appreciate the themes in the book as well.
I especially loved Dayshaun’s Gift. It was such a great time travel book and it took him back to a period of history that, despite taking American History three times in my school career, I never even heard mentioned. Dayshaun is such a kid, though, and he will feel very real and inviting to kids, even ones who might not pick up a books if there is a whiff of anything educational about it. This is one of the brilliant things about all Elliot’s books. She manages to open your eyes to something new and teach you about it without the books feeling didactic or breaking the story. Spoiler alert: Dayshaun does make it back to the present and he returns to the outhouse of the Weeksville historical village. Kids will LOVE that tiny detail.
It’s times like these I feel very grateful that I am in charge of what books we buy and where we buy them from for our library. Elliot has self published many of her books and that makes it difficult for some libraries to buy her books. If you have any say, these would make an incredible addition to any library collection that serves kids starting out in chapter books.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Benny Andrews loved to draw. He drew his nine brothers and sisters, and his parents. He drew the red earth of the fields where they all worked, the hot sun that beat down, and the rows and rows of crops. As Benny hauled buckets of water, he made pictures in his head. And he dreamed of a better life—something beyond the segregation, the backbreaking labor, and the limited opportunities of his world. Benny’s dreams took him far from the rural Georgia of his childhood. He became one of the most important African American painters of the twentieth century, and he opened doors for other artists of color. His story will inspire budding young artists to work hard and follow their dreams.
This is exactly what a picture book biography should be for younger audiences. It uses the artist’s art as more than just a bit of decoration and the text is short, to the point, and very understandable.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that it uses Andrews actual art to illustrate it. Obviously you can’t do that with every picture book biography, but in this case Andrews drew the world he saw around him and in a way that is accessible to children. It makes the book feel very much like an intimate glimpse into his life.
To me one of the really appealing aspects of his art is the lighting he uses. It looks very bright, almost harsh. This has the effect of making the colors pop, which I think children will find very appealing. I’ve said this at other times and I understand that great art is not actually easy to create, however there is a child-like look to Andrews art and I think kids like to see art that they think they could recreate or that looks like their art. His pictures also have an element of collage to them and that makes them feel a little more three dimensional instead of flat paintings.
The text itself isn’t long. There is a short paragraph on each two-page spread with a piece of Andrew’s art. This does mean that you don’t get an exhaustive look at Andrew’s life, but for younger readers (second and third grade) it’s perfect. Not enough text to turn them off and not too little to feel too young. You get enough information that you have a sense of who Andrews was and what he accomplished and, if you find him interesting enough, a desire to learn more. Sometimes I think picture book biographies try to present too much information for the format and it ends up feeling taxing to read. Almost a bait and switch- you think you’re getting a shorter picture book and you end up slogging through something much longer and more involved. It’s a turn off for kids. Draw What You See balances text and pictures very well and then includes a note at the end, a timeline, and some resources. Kids can decide if they want to seek out more at the end.
I think this would be a great book for any library with a biography collection. It’s completely appropriate for younger and older audiences, too. It should draw in those kids just coming to picture book biographies, but it could very easily pique older reader’s interest in the artist. Again, another that is on my first list of purchases for next year. We need more diversity in that collection and here is a book that is both interesting and high quality.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Jim Aylesworth’s satisfying retelling and Barbara McClintock’s heartwarming pictures celebrate how Grandfather cleverly recycles his beloved coat through four generations.
This is the standard Joseph had a little overcoat story, but it’s done in such a touching way following the family through the generations that if feels very fresh. It might be one of those books that appeals a bit more to adults for the sentimentality of the story and pictures, but the fresh spin and details still make it a book for children.
I love the illustrations in the book, probably even more than the actual text. McClintock repeats layouts throughout the book that visually connect the family and the story through the generations and connect them to their eras. And while repetitive layouts and repetitive text could feel boring and stagnant, it doesn’t. It pulls it all together and takes what might be kind of a long story for younger kids and turns it into something very engaging yet predictable. McClintok also included lots of fun little details to notice: the fashion and house decoration through the ages, even the border on the front cover with spools and buttons. It just pulls the story together and makes it a fun book to pore over. Plus some of the pictures spark conversation, like the Ellis Island in the background of that cover picture.
I’m still partial to Sims Taback’s version of the story, but this one is great too and we can’t have too many books with Jewish families in our library at the moment. It’s on my list for purchases next year (since we’re done for this year). A lot of the illustrations feature small snippets of Jewish life (a menorah on the table and the wedding scene, for example) which the text does not mention, but still connects the story with its origins and gives Jewish kids a place to point to and say, “Hey, that looks like our table!”
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, May 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I recently came across this project called The 100 Day Project. It encourages you to do one thing for 100 days, with an emphasis on making or doing something. The project technically started back in April, but I just don’t have time to do this kind of thing every day during the school year and I feel like I had my plate full this spring. So instead I decided to start late and use it to guide some (most) of my summer reading. I have a couple larger projects planned this summer, like revamping my curriculum for the library and also, with the generous help of my best friend, who is also one of the second grade teachers, weeding our Native American content in the library.
The plan is to read one diverse book a day and review it. This will give me a lot of good practice reviewing and force me to seek out a lot more diverse books. Many will be picture books (my line up is on Goodreads if you want a sense of where I’m starting out and going) because they are faster to read and a lot of these books I’m looking at with an eye toward adding them to our library collection and I do a lot of the development in the picture book section. I am really trying to hit more than racial diversity, although we need plenty more of that in our collection, so if you have any suggestions please feel free to share them.
One final note, the project asks you to document your project on Instagram. As much as I dislike taking daily pictures and as much as I dislike having one more social media account to manage I’m going to try and do this. I will be adding my Instagram account in the sidebar, but as of writing this I haven’t done it. I think I can set it up to only see the hashtag for this project (fingers crossed). If not you’ll be seeing my other 100 day project which is 100 days of simple science play with my daughter. I suppose the Instagram will serve the purpose of documenting the reading even if I don’t get around to writing reviews each and every day.