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.

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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: 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.

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Nonfiction picture book Wednesday: Fearless Flyer and Queen of the Track

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Check out the Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday link-up at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Last week I discovered an author kindred spirit.

It started when I pulled “Fearless Flyer” off the new books shelf in the children’s section of the library. After reading the story of pilot Ruth Law’s attempt to fly from Chicago to New York in one day in 1916, I did what I always do at the end of a when a book rings my kidlit bells: I read the author bio. Continue reading

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

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“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

On blind spots and “A Fine Dessert”

Is a blind spot still a blind spot if you can see it?

I had an experience of seeing one last month. It came after a flurry of Internet debate surrounding the picture book “A Fine Dessert,” written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

The book depicts four families making and enjoying one dessert in different centuries. In the first section, which set in the 1700s, an English girl and her mother pick wild blackberries, milk the cow, beat cream using a whisk made of twigs, draw water from a well, and strain the berries through muslin to make blackberry fool. In each subsequent section, the characters use newer technology but the same amount of love to create the confection. Each section ends with the characters licking the mixing bowl or spoon.

The book garnered praised from School Library Journal, The New York Times, and others, but in late October, I heard there was a backlash brewing, so I got a library copy.

The part of the book that drew controversy is the second section, set in South Carolina in 1810. In it, an enslaved mother and daughter make blackberry fool and serve it to their master’s family. Then they hide in a closet and lick the bowl clean together.

After reading this NPR article about the issue, I wasn’t sure how to react. Critics said that the 1810 scenes perpetuated imagery of smiling, happy slaves, while Jenkin’s author’s note and Blackall’s comments to NPR indicated that their intention was to show “people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice.”

From my own experiences of the world, I know that portraying oppressed people as only miserable is reductive and inaccurate. (The phenomenon of #theafricathemedianevershowsyou trend this summer spoke to that.) But did the scenes of an enslaved mother and daughter hiding in the closet effectively celebrate the strength of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances? I wasn’t sure. And I also knew that I don’t hear enough of the voices of people of color on topics of race and also on children’s literature.

So I kept reading.

Eventually, I came to this Goodreads review. In it, Jessica, a Michigan-based youth services librarian, lays out a number of strong critiques of Jenkins and Blackall’s decisions. Here’s the one that really hit me:

If I went back in time with my future child or explore sections of my portrayed history, I am showing to them that after making the dessert, we get to hide and lick the bowl. Awww, isn’t that sweet.

And there it is: my blind spot. Because I can dissect these scenes in “A Fine Dessert” a million different ways, but I never have to read it thinking “that’s what I’d have to do if I lived during slavery.”

Does seeing this mean my blind spot is gone? No. But hopefully it’s like the ones on the sides of my car: I know where they are, so I can be diligent about checking them.

Hopefully Emily Jenkins (a.k.a. E. Lockhart, the author of “We Were Liars”) and Sophie Blackall will do the same. On Nov. 1, Jenkins told the “Reading While White” blog that she had come to understand her book as racially insensitive and consequently donated her income from it to We Need Diverse Books.

Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary: 5 children’s books about strength through the storm

Hurricane Katrina children's books

This month is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. A number of children’s books related to Katrina have come out in the last ten years, ranging from nonfiction on the storm itself to fictional stories of how kids and their families were affected.

The five books below focus on survival and recovery after the storm, but news coverage of the 10th anniversary this month also has highlighted ongoing gentrification, education reform debates and other issues. I wonder what types of children’s stories about New Orleans we’ll see in the future as the rebuilding and reinvention of the city continues to play out. Continue reading