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08

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: City Shapes by Diana Murray

On 08, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

City ShapesCity Shapes written by Diana Murray, illustrated by Bryan Collier

From Goodreads: Diana Murray’s playful and poetic verse encourages readers to look for shapes everywhere, noticing the hidden details in even the simplest of scenes around them every day. And Bryan Collier’s beautiful illustrations add even more layers to the cityscapes, letting readers get immersed in the hustle and bustle, culminating in a thrilling twist when the girl looks through her kaleidoscope and sees the skyline in a completely new way.

I like books set in cities. I really like them. In another life I want to live in a big city again. I think these books are particularly interesting to share with my very, very suburban students. Even if they’ve been to our downtown or midtown, it’s so not the same.

The text of the book is simple and engaging, although it’s in rhymed couplets. I find rhymed couplets to be mostly annoying, but it works here. They seem to give the book a beat and carry you through instead of dragging you through.

Colliers’ illustrations, as always, shine. How does he make his people so beautiful and realistic? They are a delight to follow through a story. The collage style works particularly well with the story here. It gives the reader a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city as well as drawing attention to the shapes focused on each page.

My one point of confusion is the page that talks about squares. The most prominent shape on the page, the subway window the little girl is peering through, is a huge rectangle. I personally found this distracting and it took me at least one more read through to notice that just about everything else on the page is square. Oops. I will be using this in a shape themed storytime in the fall so I’ll be curious to see if the kids will be more observant than I was (and give the pictures more weight than the words).

In my opinion this is an absolute must for concept book collections. It’s fantastic.

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07

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Jones Family Express by Javaka Steptoe

On 07, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jones Family ExpressThe Jones Family Express written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe

From Goodreads: Steven adores listening to stories about his Aunt Carolyn’s travels but has always been too young to go on a trip with her. When she plans a visit, Steven is stumped over what kind of gift to give her. He finds the answer in an old toy train, which he transforms into “The Jones Family Express, ” a movable family photo album Aunt Carolyn can take wherever she goes.

Apparently I am a sucker for stories about choosing and making the right gift. The Jones Family Express is a toy train Steven revamps for his aunt. For years she has travelled all around the US and the world and on every trip she sends Steven at least one postcard. He’s always wanted to go with her and he’s always loved hearing her stories.

The day of the big block party is going to be more special because Aunt Carolyn is coming home for a short visit. Steven decides he wants to give Aunt Carolyn something special. After slipping away from the party prep, he visits the drugstore and the gift shop run by their Jamaican neighbor, but nothing is special enough (or it costs too much). Finally, desperate, Steven asks his uncle for help and finds an old toy train in the clutter of his uncle’s apartment that he has an idea for.

The story is full of family humor as well as heart. From the cousin always asking questions (“Why do dogs like biscuits?”) to the uncle always stealing bites of food off everyone’s plates. The book celebrates family, from those quirky members to the special aunt and Steven’s relationship with her. The end of the book has Aunt Carolyn giving Steven a gift of his own.

The illustrations are a mix of drawing and collage. It makes for an interesting effect. Almost as if the pictures are vignettes or dioramas. It’s fun to spot the bits of photograph and paper tucked into each illustration and could make a great jumping off point for a collage project of student’s families.

I would highly recommend this to diversify your library shelves. I think it would make a great addition to any holiday discussion about giving gifts from the heart. And certainly purchase if you have a classroom that does a unit on families. An all around great story.

 

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06

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Going to Mecca by Na’ima B. Robert

On 06, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Going to MeccaGoing to Mecca written by Na’ima B. Robert, illustrated by Valentina Cavallini

From Goodreads: We are led on the journey of a lifetime to the city of Mecca – the pilgrimage known to Muslims as the Hajj. The pilgrims walk with heads bare and feet in sandals; they call to Allah; they kiss or point to the Black Stone, as the Prophet did. Arriving at Mecca, they surge round the Ka’aba, shave their heads and travel to Mount Arafat. Finally, though their bodies are tired and aching, their spirits are uplifted, knowing that with thousands of others they have performed the sacred pilgrimage.

Going to Mecca is a lovely book about the experience of Hajj. When I began reading it I expected it to be in rhymed couplets. Instead it has a poetry of its own that really carries the reader through the story and makes it feel special. I think the book did a nice job of balancing explaining what happens on the Hajj without going into details clearly meant for non-Muslims. In other words, I think the book works for both Muslim children learning about what the Hajj is and what to expect as well as for non-Muslim kids learning about one of the pillars of the faith. There is a brief glossary at the back that explains important terms non Muslim kids might not know.

The illustrations really shine in the book too. You can follow the family on the cover through the book, but there is a huge diversity of people shown in the crowd. Women, men, black, brown, white, even a man being pushed in a wheelchair. Some scenes feature more landscape showing the reader the places involved in the Hajj. Others show large crowds which echo the pictures we often see of Mecca where people are packed in tightly. They all give you a sense of how important the hajj is and what an incredible experience it is.

I don’t think we can do enough to give our patrons and students books and resources that demystify Islam and make it more familiar. In the current political climate Muslims are facing incredible amount of Islamophobia and so much of what I see is born out of hatred, but also incredible ignorance. I will be buying this for our collection this year to build up our books on Islam and Islamic holidays.

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05

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Whispers of the Wolf by Pauline T’so

On 05, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Whispers of the WolfWhispers of the Wolf written and illustrated by Pauline T’so

From Goodreads: Ahrooooooo” went the cry. It was the call of the wolf pack. A young boy named Two Birds heard it, and so did his wolf. Two Birds had found the abandoned wolf pup, and they had grown up together. Now, the wild was calling, and Two Birds had a choice to make. Struggling with a mix of emotions, he must decide whether his love for the wolf is greater than his need to be near it. Will Two Birds learn to let go not just of the wolf, but also of his own fears?

I do appreciate that this is intended as a historical story as opposed to some made up Pueblo folktale. However, T’so never names what pueblo the boy is part of. Debbie Reese has talked a lot about the importance of identifying a specific group when sharing stories of Native Nations because it fights the stereotype of the pan-Indian (it’s also for accuracy’s sake). Even in the notes at the back of the book there is little specificity.

It’s a good story about making friends and how that can be hard. The illustrations are nice with lots of textural lines and alternating warm and cool color palettes. The beginning of the story is a little disjointed, but comes together nicely. The conclusion is a bittersweet goodbye to the wolf pup Two Birds has raised.

I worry that the relationship between the boy and his wolf leans a little close to the Magical Indian trope. He hears the wolf whispering thoughts and stories to him throughout the story. The stories he shares with the other boys in his pueblo. I think it was meant as more of device for Two Birds to make friends and emphasize his special relationship with the wolf, but I still think you could argue it veers off into trope territory.

Finally I wonder about their clothing. It’s just a loin cloth seen on the boys. I have no idea if that is accurate or not. So many stereotyped images of Native Americans inaccurately show them wearing very little clothing (often despite cool climates). It gets to the idea of the savage Indian that is so uncivilized they don’t even wear clothing. When I see images, like those of Two Birds, I worry they are unintentionally (or intentionally) tapping into that idea.

There is a forward from a woman who is from Santa Clara Pueblo. She enjoyed the story and its depiction of the Pueblo boy. There are some fairly good notes at the back with some suggested further reading. In looking more at those books, I’m not overly impressed. I know there isn’t a lot out there that is good, but these all look like standard fair when it comes to children’s nonfiction and I am still really leery of children’s nonfiction. One of the books is about running and I believe the author’s first name is incorrect- it should be Peter not Frank. There are two folktale books that are written by cultural insiders. I’m not sure I would send children to these resources, though.

I don’t know about this one. We really need quality books about Native Nations on our shelves and I’m just not convinced this one fits the bill. It might if there was going to be some instruction and critical reading of it in the classroom. Might. I think I’ll keep this in mind, but not purchase just yet.

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04

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Ellis and the Magic Mirror by Cerece Rennie Murphy

On 04, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ellis and the Magic MirrorEllis 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.

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03

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Magic Mirror by Zetta Elliott

On 03, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]The Magic Mirror by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: When a boy at school hurts Kamara’s feelings, she goes home and asks her grandmother if the mean words are really true. Gramma tells Kamara to go upstairs and clean the old mirror in the guest room. But when Kamara starts to rub the glass, she discovers that the mirror is magical! Kamara sees brave women from the past who faced many challenges yet never gave up hope. When the historical journey ends in the twenty-first century, the mirror once again shows Kamara her own reflection. She sheds her self-doubt and instead draws strength from the courage of the women she met in the magic mirror.

The Magic Mirror is another self published gem from Zetta Elliott. At it’s heart it is a story about bullying. Kamara has been teased at school and she has come home to seek comfort from her grandmother. While Kamara shares that she’s been called a name, that word is never used, which allows readers to fill in what it might be. Sadly, I’m sure African American kids can fill in worse words than what my students might. I like, though, that the book leaves it open for interpretation to some extent (as an adult it seems pretty clear to me that Kamara has been called something awful).

With a little magic in her grandmother’s mirror, Kamara is taken on a journey through history, seeing her ancestors deal with racism and injustice over the centuries and decades since Africans were brought in chains. The history she sees can be rather unflinching, but it isn’t inappropriate (i.e. graphic or overly informative) for the target audience. Elliott knows what she’s doing in sharing difficult history with children.

The beauty, if there can be any beauty in a racist interaction, is that Kamara, and by extension the reader, comes away with a fascinating and uplifting look at black history in America. The fact that this is mostly a realistic fiction story with some school yard drama make this an incredibly appealing book for kids transitioning into chapter books. There is a lot of realistic fiction at this reading level and kids seem to really want that. The book also isn’t especially long, nor is the text especially difficult, which again make it a great addition to a moving-up collection.

If I could change one thing about the book it would be the trim size. It’s somewhere between chapter book and picture book. Not only would making it smaller make the book thicker (and appear longer), but it would match with the chapter books my students desperately want to read. I just don’t understand the stigma against picture books at that second/third grade age. I suspect it comes from adults, though. Despite this, The Magic Mirror is well worth adding to your collection if you can add self published books. The first day it was in the library I had a girl gleefully grab it off the shelf and check it out. It went out at least one other time after that and I added it in the last couple months of school. I’ll be booktalking it at the beginning of the year with my second grade group.

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02

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: March of the Mini Beasts by Ada Hopper

On 02, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

March of the Mini BeastsMarch of the Mini Beasts (The D.A.T.A. Set #1) written by Ada Hopper, pictures by Sam Ricks

From Goodreads: Gabe, Laura, and Cesar live on a quiet cul-de-sac. They are the whiz kids of Newtonburg Elementary and each specializes in their own subject. In fact, everyone in town lovingly refers to them as the Data Set. However, their quiet days of learning take a sudden turn for the exciting when they meet Dr. Gustav Bunsen—a mad scientist who throws the kids into a wild spiral of adventures.
When Dr. Bunsen’s latest invention, a growth ray, hits several tiny animal toys, the mini beasts don’t just grow, they come to life! The DATA Set love their new tiny pets…until they continue to grow. Now there’s an actual elephant in the room—not to mention a chimp, a giraffe, and a dinosaur. When the beasts wander off, it’s up to the DATA Set to track them down. But will they catch the mini beasts before they grow big enough to start trouble in town?

I came across this one at the local Barnes and Noble. We are in desperate need of science fiction in our chapter book collection and I wasn’t disappointed with it in terms of story. It was a fun and funny book. As an adult I had to put aside how eager Dr. Bunsen was to work with a group of kids (is that creepy? or is he that much of an absent-minded scientist?) and the science was shaky at best. Still, kids will enjoy the story.

In it, the DATA set, a group of friends, are trying to sell chocolate bars to raise money for their club. They approach the run down house at the end of the block and meet Dr. Bunsen who happens to love chocolate. He invites them in and is delighted when the kids take an interest in his inventions. The kids and Doctor pair up and decide to test out his growth ray on their toy animals. And it works! This seems cool until the animals escape their enclosures and wreak some havoc. The kids come up with a solution for the more traditional animals, but what about the dinosaur? The book ends on a cliff hanger, setting the sequel up.

The cast is diverse and in particular you see it with Cesar who speaks some Spanish at home. The book falls into that same gray area that I was talking about with The Gold Medal Mess yesterday. It’s pretty shallow diversity even with the Spanish, but I’ve yet to see a simple chapter book like this really engage with diversity while not making the story entirely about it. I think Zetta Elliot does it best in her second City Kids book, but that is more historical fiction than science fiction (despite the time travel) and the history focuses on race. I have yet to see a lot more books like that one.

The thing is the book is fine and I think kids will like it. There is some diversity represented in the pictures. It’s not a perfect solution, but a compromise I think I have to make right now. A compromise between having no diversity and wanting more. In some ways I feel like I have to buy these books to show publishers that I want diversity so they will publish better titles in the future. Nothing in this felt problematic just shallow (if someone else catches something, please let me know), so it’s diversity I’m comfortable having on the shelf. Recommended if you need more science fiction on your shelves.

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01

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Gold Medal Mess by David A. Kelly

On 01, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Gold Medal MessThe Gold Medal Mess (MVP #1) by David A. Kelly

From Goodreads: Five friends are ready for their school’s Olympics field day. There will be relay races, archery contests, and more! But not everyone wants to play fair—someone is trying to ruin the events! Can the kids in the Most Valuable Player club solve the mystery, save the Olympics, and take home the gold?

I’m not sure I really need more mysteries in my chapter book collection, but I do need more sports themed books. I was also happy to see that two of the children pictured on the front of the book are not white. As far as I can remember their ethnicity isn’t commented on (I really don’t remember if their skin color or hair were mentioned) so it was a choice by the illustrator to make them non-white.

This book falls into that odd space where the diversity of the kids isn’t really commented on. On the one hand I want books where the diversity is incidental, but I also wonder if that’s just surface diversity and not okay. The thing about this book is, it’s a very simple chapter book with a fast paced mystery. Diversity, particularly ethnicity, doesn’t factor into the story and might be interesting to explore if it wasn’t a book intended for kids who are just learning to get through chapter books. If you load these books down kids don’t want to read them until they’re older. I’m fairly confident in our collection of chapter books. There is a range of types of stories and the diversity is considered in some and not others. I think it’s fine to add this to our collection for those kids who want to literally see themselves (on the cover), but want a fun, easy mystery. You’ll have to take your own opinion about this into consideration and an assessment of your own collection to know if it’s the right book for your library.

In terms of story, it was a simple, fun mystery. Someone is trying to sabotage the school olympics and five friends decide they need to find out who. It isn’t a huge surprise. It isn’t a deep book, but it was a lot of fun. I do recommend it if you are looking for more sports books that weren’t written thirty years ago. Also, why are there so many baseball books in the chapter book genre? I think we have one kid a year who plays baseball and yet nearly every sports chapter book we have is baseball. A fun, quick mystery involving sports and sportsmanship is a win in my collection.

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31

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Wild Berries by Julie Flett

On 31, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Wild BerriesWild Berries written and illustrated by Julie Flett

From Goodreads: Spend the day picking wild blueberries with Clarence and his grandmother. Meet ant, spider, and fox in a beautiful woodland landscape, the ancestral home of author and illustrator Julie Flett. This book is written in both English and Cree, in particular the n-dialect, also known as Swampy Cree from the Cumberland House area.

Wild Berries is such a charming story about a little boy and his grandmother going out to collect blueberries. The two enjoy nature, each other’s company, and of course blueberries. Grandma likes soft sweet ones, while Clarence likes large sour ones.

Flett’s illustrations have this very modern quality to them that is just beautiful. They are simple but not simplistic and there is always plenty to look at. I love her use of a muted, natural palette. It fits well with the wild berry picking story. She also employs textures very effectively. They seem to draw your eye around the page and to important details.

The typography in the book is also incredibly stunning. It stuck out to me in a way few other books have. Certain key words are pulled out of the text and placed on their own line in a more fanciful font. This is then echoed with the word written in the Swampy Cree dialect in the same font, but this time in red. (There is a very interesting note at the beginning and end about the Cree dialect used in the book.)

The book is, at least to American audiences, akin to Blueberries for Sal and if you are looking for diverse books to incorporate into your curriculum you could certainly use this one in place of Blueberries or in tandem with it. I would recommend this to parents looking to diversify their bookshelves too. Make space in your budget and on your shelves for this one.

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30

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin

On 30, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Best Eid EverThe Best Eid Ever written by Asma Mobin-Uddin, illustrated by Laura Jacobsen

From Goodreads: This Eid, Aneesa should be happy. But, her parents are thousands of miles away for the Hajj pilgrimage. To cheer her up, her Nonni gives her a gift of beautiful clothes, one outfit for each of the three days of Eid. At the prayer hall, Aneesa meets two sisters who are dressed in ill-fitting clothes for the holiday. She soon discovers that the girls are refugees – they had to leave everything behind when they left their native country to live in America. Aneesa, who can’t stop thinking about what Eid must be like for them, comes up with a plan – a plan to help make it the best Eid holiday ever.

The Best Eid Ever provides a lot of fodder for discussion with children. Aneesa is privileged in that her family is clearly financially secure. Not only have her parents gone off on hajj from the US, Aneesa gets several new outfits for Eid and there is plenty of food on the table. Contrast this with the refugee family she meets at the mosque. They have little food, one parent, and old clothes.

I know kids don’t need Messages in their books, but I do think there is a time and place for them, and a book that focuses on a holiday that encourages generosity is certainly one of those places. It is never heavy handed. Aneesa decides to do a good deed by sharing both food and clothing with the girls she has met. At first the refugee father is reluctant to take hand outs, but his daughters convince him that it’s okay to accept a helping hand.

The refugee family in the book would be a great conversation opener about the Syrian refugee crisis we’re currently seeing. I’m sure most of our kids are not blind to it. The book itself is longer with a fair amount of text on each page making it well suited to a second or even third grade age, which is also a good age to start talking to our students and children about these difficult issues (if you haven’t already).

This is certainly a worthwhile book for libraries to add to their holiday collections. Even though it’s about a Muslim holiday, the themes of generosity and compassion are not limited to Muslims and make it a book any child can learn from. As with The Perfect Gift, this is about Eid al-Adha, not Eid al-Fitr (Ramadan Eid), so be aware of this when shelving and cataloging it.

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