brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood. Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City. There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family. But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood. She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse. When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life. Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.
Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory. Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth. There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family. There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too. It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.
One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel. Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone. As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.
Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.
Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick
Zane lives in New Hampshire with his mother and is sent to visit his newly discovered great grandmother in New Orleans. Unfortunately, he is there when Katrina hits. Headed out of the city with his grandmother’s pastor in their church van, Zane is safe until his little dog, Bandit jumps out of the open window because some larger dogs in another vehicle are barking at him. Zane goes after him, walking for miles until he catches him. Realizing he’s closer to his grandmother’s house than the vehicle, he heads back there. Then the storm comes. Zane is in a house that is leaking, the flood waters start to rise, and he climbs with Bandit up into the attic. From there he is rescued by an older musician wearing a wild looking hat and a young girl. As chaos descends on the city, Zane finds that all of the rules change but that it is human kindness that makes all the difference.
Philbrick has crafted a very well-written book about Katrina. He melds the details of the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans into the narrative, allowing it to form the backbone of the story. At the same time, this is Zane’s specific story, one of luck and bravery. The flooded city becomes the foundation of the tale, those happy to take advantage of the situation appear and the support of police is nearly nonexistent.
Philbrick’s story is very readable, the storm offering a structure to the book that readers will feel approaching in an inevitable and inescapable way. The beginning of the book is rife with dread and fear, knowing what is going to happen. That fear never lets up even after the storm has passed. Zane is a strong and resourceful character, one who is forced to trust others and their generosity. Race plays an important role in the book, from Zane’s mixed race to his two African-American companions after the flood.
This is definitely a story of Katrina, but it is even more a survival story of a boy and his dog. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Blue Sky Press.
All Different Now: Juneteenth the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Celebrate the beauty of freedom in this book dedicated to Juneteenth. Told from the point of view of a young girl, the story is about the first Juneteenth, the day that freedom was first announced for the last of the slaves in the South. Living in shacks on a plantation in Texas, the day is just another day for the girl and her family and the rest of the slaves. They worked hard in the hot sun, not knowing that word of their freedom was steadily heading their way. Then the news arrived and people reacted in different ways, but quickly they pulled their things together and left the plantation behind for freedom. Now June 19th is celebrated as African American Emancipation Day across the United States. It’s a joy to have such a beautiful picture book to give to children to explain Juneteenth and why it means so much.
Johnson manages somehow to show slavery in all of its bone-grinding hard work and lack of freedom but also infuse it with moments of beauty, like waking to the scent of honeysuckle. Her words are poetry on the page, spare and important, speaking volumes in only a few phrases. The book ends with a timeline of important events and a glossary of relevant terms, making this a very useful book as well as lovely.
Lewis’ illustrations are beautiful. He plays with light and dark on the page, allowing the light of the hot Texas day to fill the tiny shack but also making sure that the barrenness is evident and the poverty. The book is filled with light, the sky burned to a pale yellow. Until darkness which has a richness and endlessness that is sumptuous. There is such hope on these pages, almost achingly so, particularly as freedom is announced and they turn their faces to a new future.
Beautiful and timely, this book will be welcome in library collections across the country as one of the only picture books about this holiday. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Josh Bell is a 13-year-old basketball star along with his twin brother Jordan. They are the sons of Chuck “Da Man” Bell, who used to play European ball. Now their father plays only with them, helping them learn the tricks of being a great ball handler. Josh also has a beat, a rhythm that he patters when he plays, creating rap riffs as he runs on the court. As he tells his story in verse, he also reveals more than just playing ball, he shows how he and his brother are becoming strong young men. It just may be though that the strongest man that they know has some weaknesses of his own, ones that come at a huge toll.
Can I just say how important this book is? It is a verse novel, A VERSE NOVEL, for pre-teens that is about young African-American boys who are being reared by two involved parents in a middle-class home. This book takes stereotypes and turns them on their heads. Then you have the incredible verse by Alexander, capturing the rhythm of basketball and also the beat of an entire family. The writing is so strong, so vibrant that the book can’t be put down.
Josh is a great character as is his entire family. None of them are stereotypes and both boys are different and yet similar to one another too. They both struggle with playing the best, meeting girls, living up to their parents’ expectations, and discovering the truth about their father. This is a coming-of-age story, but one that is dynamic and fresh.
Perfect for sports fans, this verse novel will surprise with its rap feel and its incredible depth. Simply spectacular. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
A celebrated poet and author of books for children and teens, Nelson tells the story of growing up in the Civil Rights era and her connection to poetry. In fifty poems, several of which have been previously published, Nelson reveals her growing up from age 4 through 14 during the 1950s and 1960s. The poems show her progression from child to a self-aware teen who is directly impacted by the changes in civil rights. Nelson also touches on the Cold War and feminism along with race in these poems. Each poem here is a gem, carefully crafted and firmly placed in its setting in the book. Beautiful.
In her author’s note, Nelson mentions that she prefers not to see the character in the book as herself but rather as “The Speaker.” The first person perspective though will leave readers assuming that this is Nelson’s personal story and journey and it’s difficult to change that perception after reading the entire book. Perhaps even more than the historical period it is The Speaker’s love of poetry and writing that makes the connection to Nelson as that person ring so true. It is that love of poetry and words that makes each poem so beautiful, but also makes the narrator come alive.
Beautiful and worth rereading and revisiting, this collection of poems that forms a story is deep and worth submerging yourself in. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Told in the first person by a young African-American dancer, this book shows how dreams can come true with lots of hard work and plenty of hope. Set in Harlem of the fifties, this young dancer dreams of becoming a ballerina. Her mother works hard to pay for her dance lessons. The ballet master saw her pretending to dance and offered her lessons. She isn’t allowed to dance onstage with the white girls, but can take lessons each day in the back of the room. Then she learns about Janet Collins, the first colored prima ballerina. Now she is going to the Metropolitan Opera House to see Collins dance and feast on the hope that that brings to her.
Dempsey’s picture book is in verse that not only shows what the little girl is feeling but also speaks to the time before Civil Rights and the separation that came with it. It is much more the story of the young girl than of Janet Collins, though it is her inspiration that led a generation of non-white girls to realize that they too could be dancers.
Cooper’s illustrations are gauzy and beautiful. When the young girl is up on the rooftop dreaming, his image is breathtaking with the color of the sky shining upon her face. He unerringly turns her toward light, speaking with pictures of the hope that sustains her. It is beautifully done.
Inspiring and exquisite, this picture book belongs in the hands of all little girls dreaming of pirouettes and tutus. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel.
Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America by Tonya Bolden
This nonfiction book takes a detailed look at a period in history that most of us know nothing about. It is the history of Indian Territory and the slaves who worked and lived there. It is the story of Oklahoma becoming a state, the establishment of black towns, and the changes that the oil boom brought to that area. It is also the story of one girl who is caught up in this history, made rich by the circumstances, and just like many other black children trapped by the corruption of those around her.
The history here is completely fascinating. Bolden brings it to life by focusing on one girl, but that focus really is a way to enter the story rather than the bulk of the story itself. Instead the story is the history and the twists and turns that it created. Bolden manages to piece together the story of Sarah Rector against this history, displaying the corruption of the adults and the system, the rush of wealth that comes and goes so quickly, and the racism that drove it all.
Bolden always creates nonfiction that is compellingly written. She shares sources at the end, offers a complete index, and her dedication to accuracy is clear throughout her books. Using primary documents, she has managed to bring together text and illustrations that paint a complete picture of the time.
Fascinating and powerful, this look into an unknown section of our history makes for one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Every morning a young boy plays a game with his father. His father knock knocks at the door and the boy pretends to be asleep until his dad is right next to him and they give each other a huge hug. But then one day, his father isn’t there to play the game any more. His father isn’t there to get him ready for school either. Morning pass with no father. The boy thinks that maybe his father is just there when the boy is at school, so he writes him a letter about how much he misses his dad and how much he expected to learn from him. The boy waits for months and nothing happens, then one day he gets a letter from his father. A letter that speaks to their separation but also one that encourages him to continue to live and knock on new doors.
Beaty’s text is deep hearted and searingly honest. As his author’s note says, he had an incarcerated father who had been his primary caregiver as a young child. So Beaty has revealed much in this picture book about the gaping hole left from a missing parent. Yet the genius of this book is that it will work for any child missing a parent for any reason. And I adore a book with such a strong connection between father and child. Beaty manages to convey that in a few pages, leaving the rest of the book to reveal the mourning and grief of loss but also a hope that shines on each page.
Collier’s illustrations shine as well. Done in a rich mix of paint and collage, they are filled with light as it plays across faces, dances against buildings, and reveals emotions. His illustrations are poetry, filled with elephants, showing the boy growing into a man, and the man turning into a father. They are illustrations that tell so much and are worth exploring again after finishing the book.
This book belongs in my top picks for 2013. It is beautifully done both in writing and illustrations. I’m hoping it is honored by the Coretta Scott King awards and I’d love to see a Caldecott as well. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Tea Cakes for Tosh by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Tosh loved spending time with his grandma Honey, who baked him tea cakes. She told him stories of the cakes, dating all the way back to his great-great-great-great-grandma Ida who made the best tea cakes around. But those tea cakes were not for her children, they were for her owners since she was a slave. Sometimes though, she would make some extra cakes for her children to promise that things would change. Honey started to forget things, like where she parked her car and phone numbers. Then one day, she forgot how to make tea cakes. Luckily, Tosh knew just how to help.
Lyons has created a relationship between grandmother and grandchild here that is warm and loving and filled with sweet baked good too. She shows the importance of generation in a family by tying in the history of the tea cakes. I appreciate seeing a boy’s relationship with his grandmother where the boy is also interested in his heritage and being in the kitchen.
Lewis has illustrated the book with realistic watercolors that capture the relationship of the two main characters. He switches to black and white images when family history is discussed and shows the tea cakes on recipe cards too. The entire book is filled with warm colors that speak to the sunny relationship being depicted.
A beauty of a book, this picture book celebrates family heritage, grandparents and the power of food to bring people closer together. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.