It’s Monday! What are you reading? #IMWAYR 2/8/16


“It’s Monday! What are you Reading?” is a meme hosted by Kathryn at The Book Date. as a way for bloggers to swap reading lists. Kellee and Jen, of Teach Mentor Texts, gave it a kidlit focus. Check out the links on their page to see what others are reading this week.

On Saturday, I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at the Kennedy Center in D.C. In anticipation of the show, I recently read a picture book biography of Ailey and another one about Robert Battle, the company’s current artistic director.

Here are my Goodreads reviews for those books.
Alvin AileyAlvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This basic bio of Alvin Ailey, who brought the spirit of African-American traditions to modern dance, would be good for a classroom unit in which students write reports on historical figures. The text is active and the scratchboard illustrations create the sense of motion and flow that ought to be in a dance-centered picture book.

View all my reviews

My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle's Journey to Alvin AileyMy Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey by Lesa Cline-Ransome
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of how a little boy wearing leg braces became a 13-year-old beginner dancer and eventually the artistic director for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. While it highlights Battle’s hard work, this picture book doesn’t leave out the guidance and support he received from family members and teachers, who are also part of his story and his dance.

Pairs well with “Alvin Ailey” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, “A Dance Like Starlight by “Kristy Dempsey,” and “Firebird” by Misty Copeland.

View all my reviews

Are your bookshelves ready for Black History Month?

America’s 40th Black History Month begins today. Here are several links to help you find relevant books to read with your children or students throughout the month.

  1. 28 Books that Affirm Black Boys and 20 Books that Affirm Black Girls: These two lists from Baby & Blog are a great starting point.
  2. 28 Days Later campaign: Throughout February, The Brown Book Shelf blog will feature guest posts and Q&As from authors and illustrators of color. The line-up looks fantastic!
  3. Top 100+ Recommended African American Children’s Books: Titles compiled by the African American Literature Book Club. This list could keep you busy till next February!

Scholastic stops sales of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”



That was fast.

In my weekend link round-up, I noted that a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, was drawing criticism for its cheerful portrayal of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved cook. Scholastic, which published the title on Jan. 5, announced later on Sunday that it was halting the book’s distribution.

Here’s the full Associated Press story on the decision.

The criticisms of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” are similar to those leveled at “A Fine Dessert” last fall, but while author Emily Jenkins apologized for that book’s portrayal of slavery, Random House is still selling it.

Weekend Round-up: #WhereIsRey & other problems in children’s toys and media


I’ve been reading/listening to some interesting debates and discussions on social issues in children’s books and toys lately. Here are a few links worth checking out.

1. Missing in action figures

Without seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I’ve heard enough about to know that the main protagonist, Rey, is female. So I was surprised to hear about her absence from most of the film’s merchandise. The Brood, a parenting podcast/radio show, dives into the details, reactions and corporate explanations.

2.  More smiling slaves making desserts, more controversy

You may have heard about the backlash a few months ago over the portrayal of slaves in “A Fine Dessert.” Now a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is receiving similar scrutiny.

3. ALA’s Youth Media awards are here, and so are some ugly reactions

The Caldecott, the Newbery and all the other annual Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association were announced Monday. I was happy to see many great books I read last year in the mix, including a good number with diverse characters and authors. Apparently not everyone was as pleased. The Reading While White blog rebuts some commenters’ claims that committees must have been kowtowing to PC-ness. The short post ends in a perfect way, by using the beautiful last line from Newbery winner “Last Stop on Market Street.”

3 ways to introduce teenagers to activist Grace Lee Boggs #GraceLeeTaughtMe

Grace Lee Boggs, a longtime civil and labor rights activist, died last week at age 100. I knew Grace’s name before but I didn’t know anything about her life or work, so I’ve been reading about her in the last few days.

I haven’t found any children’s books about her! That’s a hole that needs to be filled. But many of the resources geared toward adults could also be read/viewed by young adults, so here’s a list of three ways to introduce teenagers to Grace Lee Boggs. Continue reading

“Voices from the March on Washington” and social justice poetry in the classroom

Voices from the March on Washington

After reading “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis last month, I knew I’d need to read it again. Now I wish I had a classroom full of kids to read it with.


Because when I looked for more information on the book, I found this blog post on Sylvia Vardell’s “Poetry for Children” blog. The post consists of excerpts from a magazine article that Vardell, an author and professor, wrote for teachers and librarians aiming to integrate social justice and poetry lessons. She addresses the topic broadly and then does deeper dive on “Voices from the March on Washington.” The 2014 book is a novel-in-verse featuring the voices of six recurring fictional characters, as well as other nonrecurring characters and historical figures.

Vardell’s post is full of fabulous discussion questions and activity ideas for teachers, and many could be adapted by parents. Here are two of my favorites:

  • “Invite students to find news articles that address a social justice issue and encourage them to create ‘black out’ poems by drawing through all unwanted words in their news articles with a thick, black marker, so that the remaining words create a ‘justice’ poem.”
  • Perform “Voices from the March on Washington” in readers theater style with individuals students taking on a character. “Hearing actual voices reading can assist in discussing the title of the book and the concept of ‘voice’ in poetry,” writes Vardell. “Whose point of view is represented? Why is it important to be heard? How are the concepts of justice and voice linked?”

Heck, maybe I don’t even need a classroom of kids for those activities. I’d be happy to do them with a group of friends. But Vardell’s ideas are great for getting children thinking and talking about social justice issues past and present through
a creative medium. Her post also includes some interview questions with Lyons and Lewis (the authors of “Voices”) and a plethora of related book titles. Go check it out.

3 Children’s Books to Read After You’ve Seen ‘Selma’

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights marchers’ arrival on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. If you haven’t yet seen the movie “Selma,” about struggle for African-Americans’ voting rights, you should. If you have seen it, here are three books to read with your kids (or for yourself!) next.

1. “John Lewis in the Lead,” written by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Benny Andrews

This picture book biography provides more detail on the life of one of the main characters in “Selma”: John Lewis, a 25-year-old organizer who went on to become a U.S. Congressman representing Georgia. When watching “Selma,” it wasn’t apparent to me that Lewis had been at the lead of a range of other nonviolent resistance actions before stepping onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This book is a good introduction to those other events in the Civil Rights Movement. The narrative is unfortunately written rather passively, but I liked seeing illustrations by Benny Andrews, an African-American artist about whom another picture book bio was recently published.

John Lewis in the Lead

2. “March” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

I mentioned “March: Book One” in my February diverse reading post. I haven’t read  Book Two. Both are graphic novels, also about the life of John Lewis, but for older kids and adults. Book One covers Lewis’ youth, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his involvement in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins. Book Two focuses on his involvement in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the March on Washington. There is supposed to be a third volume in what will then be the “March” trilogy, and I’m guessing it’ll feature the march from Selma to Montgomery.

March! Book one March Book Two

3. “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley

This middle grade book tells us, in first person about the experiences of the youngest participant in the Selma march. The drama of the movie “Selma” is all about the attempts to march, but in Blackmon Lowery’s narrative we get to see details of the march itself, like where they slept and what they did when it rained. I was impressed that the voice sounded like a teenage version of the author, although she is of course far from that age now. I also liked getting to read about her impressions of some of the other participants, like Viola Liuzzo, an activist housewife who was shot by the Ku Klux Klan shortly after the march.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

Your turn: What are your favorite books about the Civil Rights Movement and its many participants?

Two Picture Books About … Queens of Music

Mahalia and MelbaMahalia Jackson and Melba Liston had a number of things in common. One was their love of music. Another was their talent.

Mahalia sang gospel. Melba played trombone. Both stood up for the rights and dignity of African-Americans.

These exceptional women are celebrated in the books, “Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens,” written by Nina Nolan and illustrated by John Holyfield (2015), and “Little Melba and Her Big Trombone,” written by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Frank Morrison (2014).

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Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: The Case for Loving

Last week I learned of Alyson Beecher’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted at her site Kid Lit Frenzy. I’m excited about the new source of reading recommendations, as well as a chance to share some. I’m not sure if I’ll post every week but I like the way Alyson does mini reviews, so I’ll try that approach to keep it manageable.

So without further ado, this week’s book: “The Case for Loving,” written by Selina Alko and illustrated by the Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, published by Scholastic last month.

The Case for Loving

This is a story of the Loving family — Richard and Mildred  — who were married in D.C. in the late 1950s, but lived in Virginia. The problem? Richard was black and Mildred was white, and Virginia law forbade interracial marriage. They were arrested and forced to leave their family, friends and hometown. Nine years later, though, their case resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court striking down bans on interracial marriage.

The plot focuses mostly on the Lovings’ relationship and how the unjust law affected them, making it relatable to children’s developing sense of fairness. The court case plays a more minor role (two spreads), making it seem a little magical, but overall the still a good introduction to a lesser-known story from the Civil Rights Movement. And I love the collage and paint illustrations, which are full of cutout hearts and butterflies that would match a Valentine’s Day card. (The artwork, by the way, is by a husband-and-wife team whose marriage would’ve been illegal in Virginia 60 years ago.)

Bonus material for older kids and adults: check out the 2012 HBO documentary, “The Loving Story,” on this subject. It’s available on Netflix instant and includes archival video of the Lovings. Pairing the documentary with this book is an interesting lens on different ways of telling a true story.


“She knew that shadow was not just hers”: Leontyne Price biography

Roses at her feet and tears in her eyes, Leontyne bowed. She glimpsed the spotlight casting a shadow. She knew that shadow was not just hers, but her parents’, teachers’, and Marian’s. Back in Laurel, Mississippi, songs of pride filled many a heart. The folks there were bowing, too.

That’s an excerpt from the nonfiction picture book, “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century” by Carole Boston Weatherford, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf.

Born in 1927, Leontyne Price was a pioneering black opera singer. But she wasn’t the first, nor were her achievements reached without support along the way. This story makes that clear, through passages like the one above and repeated references to standing on Marian Anderson’s shoulders.

Those acknowledgements don’t distract from the book’s overall focus on Price’s talent, though, and I appreciate the balance.

I often read/hear in advice for writing children’s books that stories need to be laser-focused on the main character and how he/she overcomes the problem in the story. I agree that simplicity can be key in reaching younger audiences, but I also know that most successful people will be the first to tell you they couldn’t have done it on their own. (Think of all those “thank you” speeches the stars gave at last night’s Oscars!)

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