3 Newsletters you need to read during Women’s History Month — and all year round

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We all get way too much email, I know, but some things are worth adding to your inbox. Like these 3 fantastic newsletters.

  1. A Woman to Know | This well-researched yet concise newsletter is the perfect daily morsel of rad history/inspiration that I can read at some random spare moment and then immediately archive. Created by Washington Post writer Julia Carpenter.
  2. Unladylike | This one comes from Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the sharp and sassy ladies who formerly hosted one of my favorite podcasts. Unladylike takes more dedicated reading time, but it catches me up on the good, bad and the ugly of the past week’s societal (and global) conversations about women, gender and feminism.
  3. Women in the World | In a conversational tone, this newsletter shares the gist of stories from the NY Times page of the same name. Full of links to the NY Times stories of course.

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: Kidlit about Black Music History

Each Wednesday in February, I am highlighting great nonfiction picture books about African-Americans. These posts are my way of marking Black History Month and also part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge organized by Alyson Beecher.
Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown SoundRhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: From award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney comes the story of the music that defined a generation and a movement that changed the world. Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit.

My thoughts: I love Motown music and relished reading some of the stories behind the voices, instruments and business behind the sound. With great archival photos and much more text than could finished in a read-aloud, “Rhythm Ride” feels somewhere between a book and a documentary. But does that mean it’s dry and boring? Not in the least, because it’s narrated by “the groove,” and she talks as smooth and sweet as she should.
The frequent plays-on-words can be a little much at times but otherwise the conceit works wonderfully. Would we expect anything less from Andrea Davis Pinkney?

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence MillsHarlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: From acclaimed author Renee Watson and Caldecott Honor winner Christian Robinson comes the true story of Florence Mills. Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-black musicals instead.

Trombone ShortyTrombone Shorty by Troy Andrews

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Along with esteemed illustrator Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a lively picture book autobiography about how he followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom.

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and QueensMahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens by Nina Nolan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Even as a young girl, Mahalia Jackson loved gospel music. Life was difficult for Mahalia growing up, but singing gospel always lifted her spirits and made her feel special. She soon realized that her powerful voice stirred everyone around her, and she wanted to share that with the world. Although she was met with hardships along the way, Mahalia never gave up on her dreams. Mahalia’s extraordinary journey eventually took her to the historic March on Washington, where she sang to thousands and inspired them to find their own voices.

My thoughts: What I love about “Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens” is the voice. It starts from the first two lines:
“People might say little Mahalia Jackson was born with nothing, but she had something all right. A voice that was bigger than she was.”
That conversational tone carries through Mahalia’s youth into her adult singing career:
“Mahalia kept driving on those may-blow tires: tires so bald, they may blow any minute. No money to fix them. Keep singing and driving.”
I can just hear one of Mahalia’s relatives or neighbors from down south telling the story, and it makes me feel like I’m sitting on their front porch listening.

Little Melba and Her Big TromboneLittle Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Melba Doretta Liston loved the sounds of music from as far back as she could remember. As a child, she daydreamed about beats and lyrics, and hummed along with the music from her family’s Majestic radio. At age seven, Melba fell in love with a big, shiny trombone, and soon taught herself to play the instrument. By the time she was a teenager, Melba’s extraordinary gift for music led her to the world of jazz. She joined a band led by trumpet player Gerald Wilson and toured the country. Overcoming obstacles of race and gender, Melba went on to become a famed trombone player and arranger, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs for all the jazz greats of the twentieth century: Randy Weston, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones, to name just a few.

My thoughts: The artwork really drew me into Melba’s story. There’s something about the curving, bending stances of the people Morrison paints that so exquisitely matches the smooth notes of jazz, and I love it. The figures also mirror the shape of Melba’s trombone.

Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-And-White Jazz Band in HistoryBenny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-And-White Jazz Band in History by Lesa Cline-Ransome

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: A stunning picture book celebrates the first widely seen integrated jazz performance: the debut of the Benny Goodman quartet with Teddy Wilson in 1936 Chicago.

My thoughts: In a unique approach to a picture book, this dual biography tells the parallel stories of Benny and Teddy developing their love and talents for music as children. As adults they meet and form an interracial swing band that draws fans through recordings but doesn’t perform live — until one day in Chicago in 1936.

Detailed back matter acknowledges that Benny Goodman had to be coaxed to perform onstage in an interracial trio because of fear for the impact on his individual career. Good fodder for a classroom or parent-child discussion of values and choices.

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Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: “Voice of Freedom” by Carole Boston Weatherford

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Each Wednesday in February, I am highlighting great nonfiction picture books about African-Americans. These posts are my way of marking Black History Month and also part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge organized by Alyson Beecher.

I don’t make annual “best of” book lists because I don’t read enough new books to feel comfortable with such sweeping judgments. But if I did make those lists, titles from Carole Boston Weatherford would be on them every year.

Writes nonfiction and fiction, poetry and prose, she is both prolific and talented. And her book topics are usually right in my wheelhouse: telling stories of underappreciated historical figures and important moments of social change.

I previously extolled her picture books “Freedom in Congo Square” and “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century,” but my favorite (among those I’ve read so far) is a biography of civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. I bought it immediately after reading a library copy.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou HamerVoice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford
Publisher’s description: A stirring collection of poems and spirituals, accompanied by stunning collage illustrations, recollects the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a champion of equal voting rights.

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring luminous mixed-media art both vibrant and full of intricate detail, Singing for Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with an inspiring message of hope, determination, and strength.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my Goodreads reviews


For fellow writers: you can take master classes with Carole Boston Weatherford this spring in Maryland and North Carolina. I’m signed up for one of her workshops in April.

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Muslims in Kidlit Friday: The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania

Another lunch-related picture book! This one is by Queen Rania of Jordan, inspired by one of her own childhood memories. Experiencing new foods and food-related traditions is, in my opinion, one of the great joys of traveling abroad and/or making friends from different backgrounds than yours.

The Sandwich SwapThe Sandwich Swap by Rania Al Abdullah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thoughts: Salma and Lily do everything together, until one day lunchtime differences come between them. After calling each other’s sandwiches — one hummus, one PB&J — gross, the feud spreads to their classmates and sparks an all-out food fight, leaving Salma and Lily to clean up the mess in the cafeteria and their friendship.
This book has a positive cross-cultural message, which of course I like. I also like that instead of one character being ostracized for an unusual lunch, the two characters are already friends. The small comment that leads to an out-sized fight is something so common in childhood. Luckily, kids are also capable of moving past such spats and treating each other better, as Salma and Lily show.


Other things to read this week: The Unleashing Readers blog this week has a list of of “Books to Deepen Our Understanding of the Countries on the #MuslimBan List.” The post includes one book for each of the 7 countries in Trump’s executive order.

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: Step Right Up by Donna Janell Bowman

Each Wednesday in February, I am highlighting great nonfiction picture books about African-Americans. These posts are my way of marking Black History Month and also part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge organized by Alyson Beecher.

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about KindnessStep Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: A biography of William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-trained veterinarian who taught his horse, Jim, to read, write, and do math, and who together with Jim became a famous traveling performance act and proponent for the humane treatment of animals around the turn of the twentieth century.

My thoughts: Have you ever thought horses are just as smart as humans? This picture book tells the story of a remarkable man, William “Doc” Key and his educated horse, Jim Key, who traveled the country as one of the most popular shows in America. Touching on issues of slavery, segregation and animal cruelty, it is a great addition to historical collections of classrooms and children’s libraries. It would also make a great movie.
Bonus: lots of interesting extra information in the back matter.

View all my reviews

“Step Right Up” is also this month’s books in Lisa Rose’s Missing Voice Picture Book discussion group.

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Finding titles

I’m building my list of children’s books with Muslim characters to read and recommend, so this week I thought I’d share some of the ways I’m finding titles.

It’s not an extensive set of resources, but this weekly blog post is a good motivation to push myself to find more. Please share any you’ve come across in the comments!

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: Lift Your Light a Little Higher

To celebrate Black History Month, I will highlight one or more great nonfiction children’s books about African-Americans every Wednesday.

These posts will also be part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted at Kid Lit Frenzy. Check out what nonfiction picture books others are blogging about this week here.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-ExplorerLift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Grab your lantern and follow the remarkable and world-famous Mammoth Cave explorer—and slave—Stephen Bishop as he guides you through the world’s largest cave system in this remarkable homage to the resilience of human nature.

My review: I heard about Stephen Bishop, slave explorer/guide, during my visit to Mammoth Cave in 2014, and I’m so glad someone has written a children’s book about him. Not just that, I’m glad that Heather Henson in particular wrote a children’s book about him. Picture book biographies often follow a similar narrative pattern, but this one charts its own path. That’s likely driven by the limited historical records about Stephen Bishop, but Henson combined known info and thoughtful imaginings elegantly. In first person narration, Stephen guides the reader through his story just as he guided thousands of visitors through Mammoth Cave. The tour is as much a lesson on historiography as history, starting with the first passage:
“The past is like a cave sometimes. Dim and dusty, and full of twisting ways. Not an easy thing to journey down. ‘Specially when you’re searching out a path that’s hardly been lit, a trail that’s never been smooth or flat or plain to follow.”
It’s also honest about the time Stephen lived in:
“Why? Is that what you want to know? Why is it against the law to teach me my letters?
Because I am a slave. Because am the property of a white man. Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule; bought and sold, along with the land I work.”
The silhouetted faces cut and pasted like a wave over a water color ox remind me of imagery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the cramped, dark place full of bodies that the titular character disjointedly recalls). OK that makes is sound a little intense for a children’s book, but Bryan Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations are actually perfect, lending both a seriousness and intimacy to Stephen’s tale. This book is not a story of jubilant triumph over the odds, but one of quiet power in unjust circumstances.


Bryan Collier is one of my very favorite illustrators. Some of his other books I’ve loved include:

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Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Refugee experiences

Today President Trump signed an executive order that halts the processing of refugees to the U.S. for four months. He cited national security concerns and said “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”

That statement describes most refugees. Shutting them out is profoundly un-empathetic.

Reading about refugee experiences is the opposite. Reaching out to refugees in your community all the more so.

Here are two children’s books about refugees (one picture book, one middle grade). The characters in these books are Muslim, but not all refugees are Muslim. See here and here for some more lists of children’s books about refugees.

Four Feet, Two SandalsFour Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one. As the girls go about their routines washing clothes in the river, waiting in long lines for water, and watching for their names to appear on the list to go to America the sandals remind them that friendship is what is most important. Four Feet, Two Sandals was inspired by a refugee girl who asked the authors why there were no books about children like her. With warm colors and sensitive brush strokes, this book portrays the strength, courage, and hope of refugees around the world, whose daily existence is marked by uncertainty and fear.

My review: When a relief truck delivers clothing to a refugee camp in Pakistan, Lina and Feroza each find one yellow sandal. The two girls share the sandals, along with their daily chores, memories of lost family members, and hopes for a new home. After Lina and her mother get word they will be resettled in America, the girls decide what will happen to the sandals, but the future of their friendship (and lives) remains unknown.
This touching story opens a window onto life in a refugee camp in a heartfelt, non-didactic way, as well as speaking to the meaning of friendship. Timely and timeless.

The Red PencilThe Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

 

RELATED: 2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi

I’m getting this post in just before Friday turns to Saturday. I hope to be more intentional with my posting in February as I fall into a routine with other things in my life.

Have you guessed why I chose Fridays for these posts? In Islam, Friday is significant. It’s the day of prayer, when services are held at the mosque. In Arabic most days of the week have ordinal names, i.e. “first day, second day,” but Friday, “yawm al-jum’ah,” is related to a verb for meeting or gathering. Weekends in predominantly Muslim countries are either Thursday/Friday or Friday/Saturday.

This week’s featured book is a Ramadan-related picture book. Ramadan, a month of fasting to mark the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, follows the lunar calendar. This year it will start in late May and end in late June. The emotional takeaway from “Lailah’s lunchbox” is relevant any time of year.

Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan StoryLailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Now that she is ten, Lailah is delighted that she can fast during the month of Ramadan like her family and her friends in Abu Dhabi, but finding a way to explain to her teacher and classmates in Atlanta is a challenge until she gets some good advice from the librarian, Mrs. Scrabble.

My thoughts: A culturally specific and thematically universal story about feeling strange in a new place and learning to share who you are. Lailah is excited to fast for Ramadan for the first time but nervous about explaining it to her non-Muslim teacher and classmates. All of her interactions are positive, so the conflict is an internal one. Reem Faruqi so effectively captures Lailah’s feelings and thoughts that I when I went to re-read it I realized I had mis-remembered it as being written in first person.
This simple and relatable story can serve as a “me too” story for Muslim children or an introduction to Ramadan for others.

View all my reviews

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: “Tell me Again How a Crush Should Feel” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel”

Today’s post features two novels — one YA, one middle grade. Each has an Iranian or Iranian-American main character.

My first introduction to Iranian culture and history was when I read the graphic novel Persepolis. At that time, I only knew of Iran as a harshly ruled, conservative Muslim country. In America we often hear Middle Eastern countries talked about as if their culture and governments have been static for centuries. Learning about the Islamic revolution exposed me to how dramatically a country’s politics and daily reality can change in a short time period. That’s something worth remembering in our own nation…

Anyway, on to the books!
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should FeelTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

My thoughts: Good teen novels, such as this one, are like candy. Sweet and not too complicated, so you just want to keep eating/reading. Leila’s voice is funny and real. Although this is a coming out story, I like that it starts with her already knowing she’s gay and seeming pretty comfortable with it — at least for herself. Sharing that part of her identity with private school friends and Persian family is another thing. At the same time, Leila is figuring out other parts of who she is, like what her interests are and how she can measure up to her premed sister in the eyes of her father.
Enmeshed with Leila’s coming out and coming of age narrative are the swirling drama of crushes, dating and friendship that all teens experience, and there are interesting twists in how those storylines develop. Granted, I saw the twists coming, but that they surprised Leila was believable. Some of the characters are a bit stereotyped (e.g. the vegan stage crew feminists), but part of that is tied into assumptions Leila makes about her classmates. Everyone in this story has more going on than meets than eye.
In sum: a fun YA read with a distinctive voice.
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