Happy Halloween reads

Happy Halloween! What did you read to get in the holiday mood?
I’m averse to scary movies and books, but I do love Halloween-ish stories with witches and ghosts and pumpkin delights. That usually means that when October arrives I start feeling the itch to watch Practical Magic, Hocus Pocus, or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. This month, however, I felt pulled to re-listen to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It doesn’t actually involve Halloween (or any holidays), but, being set in a graveyard, it’s full of autumnal atmosphere. It really got me in the October spirit despite quite warm temperatures in Virginia.

I also love the Halloween feasts in the Harry Potter books. Here are a few other not-so-spooky October reads I recommend.

Boo-La-La Witch SpaBoo-La-La Witch Spa by Samantha Berger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: Halloween is the most important day of the year for any witch. So when the holiday ends and the witches are tired from tricking and treating, they all head to the fa-boo Witch Spa. Here they indulge in Bat-Whisker Tea, Broom Bristle Facials, and other spooky spa goodies. A trip to the Witch Spa is sure to make any witch or warlock feel refreshed, revived, and positively revolting.

My review: Such a fun Halloween read! And the rhyming is so well done. As I read it, I felt like I was back in second grade listening to my teacher read Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss or The Night Before Christmas. Kids will love discovering all the witchy details in the illustrations.

Fright ClubFright Club by Ethan Long

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: Each year, on Halloween eve, Fright Club meets to go over their plan: Operation Kiddie Scare. Only the scariest of monsters can join Fright Club-Vladimir the Vampire, Fran K. Stein, Sandy Witch, and Virginia Wolf have all made the cut. They’ve been practicing their ghoulish faces, their scary moves, and their chilling sounds. But when a band of cute little critters comes along asking to join in the fun, the members of Fright Club will find out who really is the scariest of all!

My review: Fun and clever.
Leo: A Ghost StoryLeo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: You would like being friends with Leo. He likes to draw, he makes delicious snacks, and most people can’t even see him. Because Leo is also a ghost. When a new family moves into his home and Leo’s efforts to welcome them are misunderstood, Leo decides it is time to leave and see the world. That is how he meets Jane, a kid with a tremendous imagination and an open position for a worthy knight. That is how Leo and Jane become friends. And that is when their adventures begin.

My review: Now I want to be Leo for Halloween. Love the cut paper and crayon (oil? i don’t know) illustrations in this simple friendship tale.

View all my reviews

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Inspiring women on the silver screen: Dolores Huerta and Billie Jean King

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Dolores Huerta leads the audience in chanting “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!” at a screening of the new documentary about her life, Dolores, in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15. Photo by Kara Newhouse.

On any given day I’m much more likely to be found reading a book than watching a movie. But tell me about a film featuring rad women in history, and I’m in. I recently wrote about two such films.

In a piece for Excelle Sports, I interviewed female sports leaders such as Olympian Nancy Lieberman and Peachy Kellmeyer, the first full-time employee for the Women’s Tennis Association, about their memories of the Battle of the Sexes. That historic tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is the subject of a new movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carell. The women I spoke with all shared powerful stories about how the real event affected their lives as women in sports.

For Images & Voices of Hope, I wrote about Dolores, a documentary about farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta, a critical leader in the grape boycott of the 1960s and 1970s. The story includes video clips of Dolores from the post-screening Q&A I attended in D.C.

On the kidlit front, if you’re interested in sharing the stories of these women with your children or classrooms, check out Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers by Sarah Warren. Surprisingly, I was unable to find any standalone picture book biographies about Billie Jean King, though she does appear in some sports anthologies for children.

 

2 African-American cyclists of note, 1 century apart

Marshall “Major” Taylor was an elite cyclist in the 1890s and early 1900s. He was the first African-American to win a world championship in any sport.

Ayesha McGowan is a contemporary cyclist on a mission to become the first female African-American pro cyclist. Ever.

Chances are you haven’t heard of either of them.

I don’t recall how I first encountered McGowan — an Internet rabbit hole of some kind, no doubt — but I recently had the opportunity to interview and write about her for Excelle Sports. Check out the profile and then follow her blog or Instagram for a chance to see history as it happens.

Just keep pushing. #aquickbrownfox

A post shared by ayesuppose (@ayesuppose) on

 

While researching that Excelle piece I came across Taylor’s life story, and I did what I always do after “why haven’t I heard of this person before?” moments: checked the local library for children’s books about him. I found the following picture book. Perhaps one day, if McGowan achieves her goal, there will be a biography of her on the shelves, too.

Major Taylor, Champion CyclistMajor Taylor, Champion Cyclist by Lesa Cline-Ransome

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the turn of the 20th century, “Major” Marshall Taylor was the fastest cyclist in the world. In this picture book biography, Lesa Cline-Ransom and James E. Ransome recreate Taylor’s journey from a bicycle shop stunt boy to a world champion who battled racism by winning races.

Major Taylor’s name should be on any list of American sports heroes and notable African-Americans in history. Today a network of cycling clubs across the U.S. bear his name but few outside those groups know his story. This book is a good starting point for bringing Taylor’s legacy to the fore, though the word count could definitely be pared down and the language punched up.

View all my reviews

3 podcasts for Pride

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LGBTQ Pride Month is almost over, but before it wraps up, I wanted to shout out some relevant podcasts. Each of these either focuses on gender and sexuality or is hosted by someone who identifies as LGBTQ.

    1. Nancy — So many media narratives about LGBTQ life focus on issues of coming out, bullying, and harassment. This WNYC podcast doesn’t neglect those struggles, but it also tells a broader range of stories es. In a recent episode, for instance, one of the hosts attended a summer camp for queer adults and recorded the evolution of her crush on a fellow camper. In another, the hosts arranged a Skype meeting between an experienced drag queen and an Alaskan high schooler to get advice on going to prom in drag.
    2. Free Cookies — On this ESPNW podcast, sports journalist Kate Fagan and yoga teacher Kathryn Budig share sports and wellness advice, alongside interviews with top athletes. I love podcasts where you get to hear an authentic personal dynamic between podcast co-hosts, and Fagan and Budig, who are in a relationship, definitely deliver. They are smitten and supportive but also realistic about each others’ shortcomings.
    3. Out Here in America – This is a new podcast from Mississippi’s Sun Herald newspaper, focused on the lives of LBGTQ folks in the rural South. It will take more than a few episodes for the show to hit its stride, but there’s a lot of potential there. The first episode tackled the Pulse nightclub shooting anniversary, and the second featured comedian Tig Notaro recounting her wedding held on the beach in Mississippi.

Of course these are just a few podcasts with LGBTQ themes or hosts. Feel free to share other recommendations in the comments!

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Update

Clearly I haven’t kept up with my goal of weekly posts on children’s books by or about Muslims. It’s been a busy spring for me: working, taking classes, studying for the GRE and getting ready for my wedding. Up until the last week or so I have still managed to fit in regular intervals of kidlit writing, but ultimately blogging wasn’t a priority.

Today, however, I saw this Bustle post, “11 Books By Muslim Women That Show The Many Facets Of Islam” and wanted to share it. None of them are picture books or middle grade, but teenagers will find titles to try on there, including some books that are specifically YA. I’ve read a few from the list before and I’m adding many of the others to my TBR shelf.

Sylvie’s Chocolate Camel

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Author A. LaFaye has a fun kid lit writing contest going at her blog this month. Inspired by Kevin Henkes’ sweet board book, “Owen’s Marshmallow Chick,” she’s asked writers to craft a story of a character who becomes friends with their food. Entries must be 100 words or less and shared in the comments on her blog. The deadline is tomorrow, March 31st!

I enjoyed getting my creative sugars flowing with this prompt. My entry is below. Thank you to my friend, Vivian Kirkfield, whose blog post and entry alerted me to this treat of a contest.

Sylvie’s chocolate camel

Sandra’s chocolate camel had one hump.

Chomp!

Then it had none.

Jaden’s chocolate camel had two humps.

Chomp! Chomp!

Then it had none.

Sylvie’s chocolate camel had three humps.

She scooped him up.

“You belong in a desert,” said Sylvie. “Not dessert.”

So she carried her camel outside, and they played in the sandbox all afternoon.

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Chocolate camel from Dubai. Source: Economic Times of India.

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.