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21

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Girl Who Saved Yesterday by Julius Lester

On 21, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Girl Who Saved YesterdayThe Girl Who Saved Yesterday written by Julius Lester, illustrated by Carl Angel

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.

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20

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Perfect Gift by J. Samia Mair

On 20, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Perfect GiftThe Perfect Gift written by J. Samia Mair, illustrated by Craigh Howarth

From Goodreads: Sarah is sad because she cannot find an Eid gift for her mother, so she takes a walk along the secret path in the woods that always makes her feel better. There she finds the first flower of spring—God’s perfect gift to the world. Leaving her gift in its place to share with her entire family, Sarah grows in her understanding and appreciation of nature and what it means to live in submission to God.

This is such a sweet story about a little girl worrying about finding the perfect thing to give her mother. Her siblings have all found something they know she will like, but Sarah hasn’t hit on the right thing yet. It is also the perfect book for the holiday season when people stress over choosing just the right thing to give. Gift giving can be difficult for children who do not have money of their own to purchase things. Sarah proves that some of the most valuable and beautiful gifts do not need to be purchased nor do they need to last forever.

The story reminds me a little bit of The Day it Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond. In that book Cornelia Augusta finds hearts on the ground during a rainstorm and uses them to make her friends Valentine’s Day cards. It never rains hearts again, but that one day was all she needed to continue to inspire her in the years to come. In the same way Sarah discovers a stunning flower in the snow. She shares it with her family and instead of plucking it she builds a tiny fence around it. She then invites her family out to appreciate it. Every Eid after, they come back to the spot where the flower was, and even though there is never a flower there again, they remember it and appreciate the woods around them instead. They begin looking for “perfect gifts” all around them.

I think the illustrations are totally perfect in this. They show a Muslim family in the way we always see “typical” American families pictured, only this family has hijabs. This isn’t to say I don’t want picture books with Muslim families that look Arab or live in an Arab country. And it isn’t to say that I want to whitewash Muslim families. I just want a mix of books that shows Muslim families around the world and many of the Muslim families in my community look and live like this one.

A word about Eid. There are two Eids in Islam, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is the celebration that comes at the end of Ramadan and is the time when Muslims tend to visit family and exchange gifts in the way Christians do at Christmas. The Perfect Gift is about Eid al-Adha. This is the time when many Muslims perform hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. So, be sure you don’t put it out with your Ramadan books!

I highly recommend this book for libraries with holiday collections. Eid al-Adha is an important holiday in Islam and should be represented.

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19

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford

On 19, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Before JohnBefore John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls

From Goodreads: Young John Coltrane was all ears. And there was a lot to hear growing up in the South in the 1930s: preachers praying, music on the radio, the bustling of the household. These vivid noises shaped John’s own sound as a musician.

This one is perfect for introducing both jazz and John Coltrane to a younger audience. Think Kindergarten. It would make an excellent read aloud, because it has great rhythm. The first line/title is repeated on each page and is followed by a few simple lines that give a glimpse into Coltrane’s life.

Art feels cozy and intimate because it isn’t busy. Colors alternate between warm and cool tones with a few splashes thrown on opposite pages. Young Coltrane is so charming with his big head and sweet expressions.

The end is followed up with an informative note that fills in more of the story. You could share this information as you see fit, depending on the audience. His life was not easy. He lost his grandparents, aunt, and father in a short time which threw the family into economic distress. His mother moved to Philadelphia leaving John behind to live in their house that they rented out to boarders. As an adult he abused alcohol and drugs, but did recover only to die at 40 from liver problems.

What really shines in the book is the idea that it was the everyday recognizable things that made John great, not something he was born with. He did eventually pick up instruments and he clearly had innate talent there, but until he really started playing he listened to the world around him and absorbed it all.

An excellent addition to jazz collections for lower school readers.

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18

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Series Review: Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers

On 18, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Papa LemonPapa Lemon’s Little Wanderers written by Lehman Riley, illustrated by Joshua Wallace

  • Book 1: Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King
  • Book 2: The Dangerous Escape From Slavery
  • Book 3: World War II, The Navajo Wind Talkers
  • Book 4: The Life of Babe Didrikson
  • Book 5: The California Gold Rush
  • Book 6: Dr. Daniel Williams and the First Successful Hear Surgery in 1893

From Goodreads: Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah are the neighborhood grandparents in the small town of West, Mississippi. Papa Lemon helps five multi-cultural friends learn about our nations diverse heritage by sending them back in time via a magical train.

Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers is a series I came across through another blog’s supporters page. Several of the books in the series cover time periods and events that are studied in my school, so I thought I would buy the series and give them a shot.

I really enjoyed them, and while there are a few issues, by and large they are well worth adding to a chapter book collection. Each book features a group of friends who travel back in time to explore different historical periods and meet historical figures. There’s a bit of belief suspension required around their time traveling locomotive, but I think only sticklers will mind. The writing in the books flows nicely and isn’t overly complex or overly simplified. They are short, beginning chapter books so the stories are bit simplistic, but again for the reading level that is perfect. The dialog is never stilted and nothing felt jarring or awkwardly phrased.

One technicality. There are no actual chapters in these. I’m calling them chapter books because of their length, the ratio of pictures to text, and the complexity of the stories and text. I really wish they had chapter breaks, though. It would help sell the books to readers who are looking for that grown-up feel of chapters. I also wish the trim size was smaller. Again, it makes the kids feel like they are reading older, harder books.

I also wish someone like Debbie Reese would look at the third book which talks about the Navajo Wind Talkers. There are good books out there about them (Joseph Bruchac’s for example), but they’re are all written for older, stronger readers. I think Riley was respectful in handling the Native uncle, but there wasn’t much information about the Wind Talkers. I suppose by stating he was a Wind Talker, it identifies the uncle’s, and by extension Kaya’s, native nation, but I wonder if it could have been more specific. I also wonder if there could have been more information about the Navajo that would have helped the story along. When the friends end up traveling back in time in the book they go to the Pacific theatre to meet another friend’s uncle, not to see the Wind Talkers.

The illustrations are fine if sometimes a little awkward, but there really aren’t that many of them. This is the place where the books feel like something self published. Kids like slick books, but in my experience what they think of as slick and what adults think of as slick can be vastly different. I think the trim size of these books is more likely to make them hesitate to pick them up. The friends are drawn as a diverse group with a mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds. Based on the third book the Native American girl is identified as Navajo. My only complaint about how the text and illustrations work together is AJ, the white friend. In the text he’s always hungry. No mention of his build or shape is made, but the illustrations show him as overweight. I think it’s a stereotype and while I think it would be great to have an overweight kid in the book, I don’t think he should be the one who is always hungry and wanting to find a snack. There’s no reason he has to be drawn that way.

A short historical note at the end of these that either elaborated on the historical period or pointed readers to more information would make them a little stronger. I completely understand that the books are not deep historical accounts of the time periods the kids visit. These are short chapter books for emerging readers. They are absolutely perfect for sparking their interest in these historical time periods and figures, so why not point them in the right direction to find more information.

Be aware that some of the titles appear to be out of print and need to be purchased used. The print quality and overall production quality has gotten better over the series, which is nice if they are going to be circulating. I plan on hand selling these to my second graders and any third graders I can find (I think I’m switching from working with third grade to pre-k this coming year? we’ll see) and I’ll report back on how they are received. I think between our Civil Rights study in music in the second semester and the (flawed) study of the Underground Railroad I can rope them in with the first two books. I’m still chewing on AJ and how problematic he is.

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17

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Sound That Jazz Makes by Carole Boston Weatherford

On 17, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Sound That Jazz MakesThe Sound That Jazz Makes written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

From Goodreads: A symphony of sound and color, The Sound That Jazz Makes is an eloquently rendered celebration of a remarkable heritage. Author Carole Boston Weatherford’s lyrical stanzas combine with the power of luminous oil paintings by Coretta Scott King New Talent winner, Eric Velasquez to trace the development of jazz. From African forests to wooden slave ships to Harlem nightclubs, the tragic and joyous legacy of the African-American experience gives jazz its passion and spirit.

This was an incredibly clever riff on the classic cumulative rhyme “The House That Jack Built”. Each page has a quatrain with the rhyme scheme AABB. It really makes the book move along and sing.

The story follows the invention of jazz from Africa through the middle passage to slavery, the Jazz Age, and into the modern era with hip hop. It’s an amazing look at the history of a people through music. It isn’t cumulative in the way the traditional rhyme is, though, and this is where the genius of it comes in. It’s cumulative in its history. Each quatrain builds on the next because the history it presents builds on the history that came before. This also cleverly leaves a lot open for discussion despite the simple four-line text.

The illustrations by Eric Velasquez are beautiful. People glow. Their expressions are so full of life. Each page usually features more than on scene and he combines them seamlessly. Some appear in strips stacked on top of one another. Others are nested inside the larger illustration.

I highly recommend this one for collections that feature some jazz books or are looking to add a few, but also any school library that supports curriculum that studies African Americans. It’s such an engaging look at history that will work for a range of ages.

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16

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Bebop Express by H. L. Panahi

On 16, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Bebop ExpressBebop Express written by H. L. Panahi, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

From Goodreads: This rockin’, rhythmic railroad adventure celebrates the uniqueness of America and the beboppin’, doo-woppin’ sound of jazz, from jammin’ New York City all the way to New Orleans. 

Bebop Express would take a special reader to make it come alive. Without the right person reading it, one who can get the rhythm and beat of the words just right, could make it fall incredibly flat. Actually, it seems like it should be read to music (I wonder if there is an audiobook of it out there that’s really good.?).

The text is full of repetition, scat-like words, and instruments sounds. It definitely captures jazz and the movement of train travel. The train moves through various stops in cities connected with the creation and growth of jazz, St. Louse, New Orleans, Chicago. At each stop the train picks up a new musician, a bassist, a drummer, a singer, etc. No one is named, but they are clearly modeled on famous jazz musicians.

Collage illustrations give this a slightly askew perception. Pictures are cut up and crookedly reassembled. People are cut out and laid on top. Colored strips of newspaper form backgrounds. I can’t say it’s my favorite style, but it works with the text here.

Knowing that our music program does a unit on jazz I would buy the book because it does a good job of capturing the musical style in its words and illustrations. It reads almost like a spoken word poem. Because of that I think it would be a challenging read for most kids. Lots of made up words and broken sentences that felt hard to follow. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t recommend it, but there are other jazz books I would suggest purchasing first that kids won’t struggle with as much. If you really love jazz and think you could read this out loud well, I would definitely recommend it.

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15

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Furqan’s First Flat Top by Robert Liu-Trujillo

On 15, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Furqan's First Flat TopFurqan’s First Flat Top written and illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo

From Amazon: Furqan Moreno wakes up and decides that today he wants his hair cut for the first time. His dad has just the style: a flat top fade! He wants his new haircut to be cool but when they get to the barbershop, he’s a bit nervous about his decision. He begins to worry that his hair will look funny, imagining all the flat objects in his day to day life. Before he knows it, his haircut is done and he realizes that his dad was right-Furqan’s first flat top is the freshest!

I’ll point out right at the start that this a book that was published with a Kickstarter campaign. I know that some libraries cannot buy books that are self-published or not reviewed. Sad for them. This book is amazing.

Liu-Trujillo is an incredible artist. I am always impressed when people can successfully paint anything besides a wash with watercolor, but he’s managed to capture expressions, places, and objects perfectly. Furqan Bathroom SceneI adore the illustration with the father shaving in the bathroom in mismatched socks and his underwear while Furqan stands by the tub with a tentative look on his face. Throughout the book the dad has the look of love on his face as he reassures Furqan and supports him by taking him to the barbershop.

The story is a sweet one about Furqan wanting to cut his hair. He’s always worn it short and curly, but he thinks he wants a flat top. Liu-Trujillo has perfectly captured the illogical anxiety kids can have over everyday things like haircuts. Furqan worries his hair will be flat like a pancake or record. He’s also worried about the reaction he’ll get at school. While the story is about a change in hairstyle, I think it applies more broadly to the anxiety children can have over their first haircut. Will it hurt? Will it look silly? Will it grow back?

Liu-Trujillo also nails a supportive and reassuring dad. I appreciate the book even more for mentioning a mom, but not showing her involved in the story. Even as an involved mother I want to share books with my daughter that show dads can be involved and good parents too. If you have young kids who may be getting their first haircuts or older kids who may want to change their style you have an automatic audience.  The cover and illustrations are so appealing that kids will pick this off the shelf and want to take it home regardless of their hair. Pair it with Zetta Elliot’s A Hand to Hold for books about first experiences and wonderful dads.

If you can buy this book, do it. The copy I ordered came in a beautifully addressed envelope! It was signed and had three stickers, too! I should also point out that I read it to my daughter and I’m going to have to order a new copy for the library because she loves this book.

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14

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill

On 14, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jazz DayJazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph written by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo

From Goodreads: When Esquire magazine planned an issue to salute the American jazz scene in 1958, graphic designer Art Kane pitched a crazy idea: how about gathering a group of beloved jazz musicians and photographing them? He didn’t own a good camera, didn’t know if any musicians would show up, and insisted on setting up the shoot in front of a Harlem brownstone. Could he pull it off?

Jazz Day has been getting a lot of really positive reviews. I think this book is clever in a lot ways, but I wonder a bit about kid appeal. Does any one else have a hard time selling poetry to their students? I’m not saying they won’t pick it up and read it, because some kids certainly will. Others seem to want to, but more often than not, when I read poetry out loud to the kids, I get mostly confused faces and “huh?”s. Then I just want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, yelling, “Listen to this language and think about it!! Isn’t it amazing?!?!?” It’s like if it isn’t in rhymed couplets (ugh, Dr. Seuss) they can’t follow it.

I don’t think this says anything about the importance or appeal of Jazz Day per se. Instead I think it points more to the need to read more poetry to the kids. (If you aren’t already familiar with Poetry Friday, check them out.) In my personal opinion we should all have amazing jazz book collections considering it’s a true American form of music and celebrates African American contributions to society. It also opens up a lot of very hard discussions about race, racism, and discrimination.

How is that we go from rhymed books and nursery rhymes sung and spoken to our babies and toddlers to nothing resembling poetry? Why does poetry in our curriculum and everyday lives seem so exotic? Is it all the boring and terrible poetry written by white men considered part of the Great Literary Canon that we’re forced to analyze line by line in high school and middle school? I know that certainly turned me off to poetry for a long time. Is it because they aren’t hearing spoken word poetry? I don’t really have the answer here, but it really impacts my ability to get kids to read incredible books like Jazz Day.

Okay, I went way off on a tangent here. The thing is Jazz Day is a pretty amazing collection of poems about a fascinating event that was a little slice of history and yet I don’t think it will be overly popular in our collections. Not because it isn’t worthy or worthwhile, but simply because our kids and teachers don’t know what to do with poetry. Or maybe that’s just my school?

The illustrations here have such an incredible vintage feel. The limited color palette and the lines in it really make the people leap off the page and yet feel like photographs. The reveal of the actual photograph is done beautifully with a fold-out page. The top page is black with one word in white “click” and opening the fold reveals the photograph. The thing is, it took me a minute to realize this wasn’t another painting, but the actual photograph. To my mind, the photo and illustrations blended together so seamlessly.

While the poems in this book are good and the illustrations beautiful, the back matter really shines. There is so much good stuff there that really fleshes out the poems, the history of jazz, and the story of the photograph. I will be forcing this book on our music teacher (who is absolutely incredible) and I know she will take to it and would probably incorporate it into her lessons. She does an entire unit on jazz (and not just during Jazz Appreciation Month). If you have kids who will read poetry, know you have teacher that does a unit on jazz, or want to have a jazz storytime I recommend getting this one. Otherwise balance the need to buy books the kids are most likely to pick up and read with your budget.

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13

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill

On 13, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Skit ScatSkit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald written by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Sean Qualls

From Goodreads: When Ella Fitzgerald danced the Lindy Hop on the streets of 1930s Yonkers, passersby said good-bye to their loose change. But for a girl who was orphaned and hungry, with raggedy clothes and often no place to spend the night, small change was not enough. One amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ella made a discovery: the dancing beat in her feet could travel up and out of her mouth in a powerful song —and the feeling of being listened to was like a salve to her heart.

Wow! This book really brought Ella Fitzgerald to life. It was a slow build, and it was rather long, but well worth the read.

Instead of focusing on Ella’s successful career or the entirety of her life, Skit-Scat looks at her teenage years. She grew up in Yonkers and loved to dance. She and her friend Charlie would dance on the street corner where they earned a few cents. At 14 her mother died suddenly and this began a spiral downwards for Ella. She lived with an “unkind” step father (the book does not specify what that meant) and was then taken in by a cold and austere aunt. She got into some trouble with the law and was then sent to an abysmal orphan school. After two years of abuse, Ella ran away and couch surfed and lived on the street in Harlem. It doesn’t specify if or how she made money during that time, but it was the Depression and money was tight for everyone. She began trying out at amateur nights at clubs and won two contests.

Unfortunately she was rough around the edges in second hand clothes, messy hair, and dirty. This made it hard to find work with bands who expected her to be presentable. No easy prospect for a homeless teen. Fortunately her talent landed her a job with the Chick Webb Band and they saw past her exterior and helped clean her up. I was so surprised that Fitzgerald was homeless and abused. It isn’t the story you usually picture or hear about her. It breaks your heart, but her story is also very uplifting. A true rags to riches tale.

The writing, despite being long, was engaging. It has little interjections like “clink, plink, roll” and “ding a-ding a-ding” that add some of the verve of jazz in the 30s to the text. In my personal opinion, I wish the illustrations were a little more brightly colored, but Qualls’ illustrations are always lively and expressive. Definitely worth adding to a biography collection. It’s a little long for a read aloud during a storytime, but would make a great addition to a classroom curriculum that studies music, jazz, the arts, the Depression, or African Americans.

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12

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Same, Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

On 12, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Same SameSame, Same But Different written and illustrated by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

From Goodreads: Elliot lives in America, and Kailash lives in India. They are pen pals. By exchanging letters and pictures, they learn that they both love to climb trees, have pets, and go to school. Their worlds might look different, but they are actually similar. Same, same. But different!

I’m still on the fence about this one. There’s a lot to like, particularly the idea that, although these too two boys live far apart in very different places, they share some similarities underneath the window dressings. The book is written by a woman who visited India and Nepal and set up an picture pal program at a school in Nepal.

The thing is, I’m not sure visiting makes you qualified to write about somewhere. Because the book is clearly geared toward young children it isn’t particularly deep. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, because young kids don’t want to sit through long, detailed books. But I can’t help wondering if the fact that it isn’t deep is because she isn’t a cultural insider. Some of the ideas about Kailash felt stereotyped too (living with tons of family, owning lots of farm animals, the Taj Mahal pictured on his map). Why couldn’t Elliot be exchanging pictures with an Indian boy whose life is more similar? There are Indians who live lives comparable to Americans. Why do all narratives about African countries, Asian countries and India have to be about poor or disadvantaged families? Admittedly Kailash doesn’t appear to be poor or rich, but some of the details of his life seem to to be American code for poor (owning cows that live in the family compound, living in a small village, living with lots of family members).

I also didn’t like that the subject of nearly every drawing was initiated by Elliott. That made the story feel like it was Kailash comparing his life and world to an American life and world and making it fit in with that framework. Instead of it going both ways.

Looking at the map Kailash draws it has a lot of things Westerners associate with India. The humped cow, a peacock, and the Taj Mahal. No where in the book does it say where Kailash lives and India is an enormous country. While he may know the Taj Mahal, I’m not sure he would put it on his map unless he lived near it. I would be like me, living in California, drawing the Empire State Building on my map. Sure, it’s famous and I know it’s in New York, but it has very little to do with my world, especially as a kid. Kailash’s map seems like a map drawn for an American audience.

The title itself is taken from a phrase the author heard/learned while traveling. It sounds like broken English to me and makes me wonder if it’s okay that she used the phrase.

The story in a vacuum is fine, but I can’t quite decide about all the other noise around it. Will kids explicitly notice any of my complaints? No, but that doesn’t mean we want them internalizing ideas that could be harmful if they aren’t examined. It did win an Ezra Jack Keats award, though. I guess I would say I recommend this with reservations. Check the rest of your collection and see what kind of narrative is being created about India.

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