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.

nonfiction-pb-challenge-2017

Advertisements

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:

nonfiction-pb-challenge-2017

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.
Continue reading

The importance of spotlighting #ownvoices titles

I’ve written a bunch here about the #weneeddiversebooks conversation and organization since it emerged in 2014. Last year, a related conversation around the authorship of diverse stories was spurred by a suggestion from YA writer Corinne Duvyis. Since then, people have been using the hashtag #ownvoices to  share book recommendations that are written by people from the same diverse group/s as the characters.

Highlighting such titles doesn’t mean that people can’t write outside their own experiences and groups, but it does recognize the importance — for both dominant and minority group audiences — of hearing from marginalized voices themselves. It also acknowledges the institutional barriers that diverse authors face in getting published and publicized in the first place.

You can find tons of great reading suggestions by searching #ownvoices on Twitter. Also, for the month of September the Reading While White blog is featuring a daily review of an #ownvoices book. That’s given me some exciting titles for my to-read list, such as “Little White Duck,” a graphic memoir by Na Liu about  growing up in China in the 1970s.

And if you’re still wondering about the issue of writing outside your own experience, I love YA author Lamar Giles’ response to that in this post on BookRiot.

True stories of 3 diverse athletes and 1 female sportswriter | #IMWAYR 4/18/16

IMWAYR-2015-logo

“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.

It finally turned springlike in recent days, with buds on trees, and kids returning to baseball diamonds and lacrosse fields.

Apropos of the change in season, I’ve read several great children’s books about athletes (and one sportswriter) recently. Here are my Goodreads reviews for those books.

Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl's Baseball DreamCatching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl’s Baseball Dream by Crystal Hubbard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This picture book is about Marcenia Lyle, a girl who loves baseball more than anything. We learn in the afterword that Marcenia was signed to the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns in 1953, making her the first female member of an all-male professional baseball team, but this story doesn’t get into Marcenia’s adult life. It focuses on one spring when Marcenia dreams of being accepted to a summer baseball day camp run by the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. That means not only showing off her skills to the man in charge, but also convincing her father to let her attend.

Crystal Hubbard’s choice to highlight one emblematic chapter of Marcenia Lyle’s childhood is a great way of introducing a lesser known athlete through a conflict that builds and that draws in young readers.

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the GameThe William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Hoy is a man worth knowing about. Plenty of details and events in here for all kinds of kids to relate to. Well written and well illustrated.

Continue reading

J.K. Rowling’s missteps with Native Americans and my We Need Diverse Books resolution for 2016

J.K. Rowling came under fire earlier this month for her portrayal of Native people and cultures in a series of online stories related to Harry Potter.

The collection focuses on the fictional history of North American magic as part of a larger project to expand the Harry Potter universe and its back stories. But the recent installment received fast criticism from Native Americans, who said Rowling treated them as magical creatures and a monolithic group.

The backlash speaks to the much bigger conversations to be had on how much and in what ways American Indians are represented in children’s literature. I touched on this subject briefly in my conversation with Pam Margolis, but I am by no means an expert. (But you know who is? Debbie Reese. Check out her blog.)

That’s why part of my 2016 We Need Diverse Books resolution is focused on books by or about Native people.

As I thought about my resolution back in January, I didn’t think upping the raw number of diverse books I read made that much sense, because I pretty much maxed out my reading time last year. But I did think about the breakdown of what I read last year and how I could mix it up. Continue reading