Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub
Saya’s mother has been taken to an immigration detention center and held for three months. Saya misses her a lot, spending time at night listening to her mother’s voice on the answering machine. Her Papa spends his evenings writing to judges and the media to find help, but no one ever responds. Every week, Saya and Papa go to visit her mother, but it is always hard to leave her behind again. Then Saya’s mother starts to record stories for her, all based on Haitian folk tales, some sad and some happy. Saya decides to write her own letter to the media and gains their attention. Soon Mama is brought before a judge due to the pressure brought by the media and viewers. The judge allows her to return home until her papers arrive.
Danticat is a National Book Award winner for her adult books. In her Author’s Note she speaks to the impact of immigration and separation in her own childhood. In the United States in recent years, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed or deported. This is an issue impacting every community in our country. Danticat offers not only a view of how this separation affects a child, but also a way forward for both children to feel they are doing something to help and parents who are jailed to stay in touch with their children through stories from their heritage. Beautifully written, this picture book sings the message of diversity, inclusion and humanity.
The illustrations by Staub are lush and colorful. They show the power of the human voice and shared stories in a visual way, swirling the page with images of Mama as well as from the stories being shared. The colors of joy infuse the pages just as the colors of sorrow appear on others. It is a very effective way to show the myriad of emotions that Saya is feeling.
An important book that is beautifully written and illustrated, this picture book belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.
Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra
Cornelius worked in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He was a garbage man who loved his job. He greeted everyone in the neighborhoods and made sure that the streets were clean of even a single wrapper. He had amazing calls he used with his driver, shouting “Woo! Woo!” when it was time to stop and “Rat-a-tat-tat!” when it was time to drive on. He didn’t just carry bags from the curve, he tossed and juggled them, adding dance steps to his routine job. He could launch bags through the air one after another and they landed in a perfect pyramid on the truck. But then Hurricane Katrina came to New Orleans and the city streets filled with mud and muck and piles of garbage. At first Cornelius was overwhelmed by the work to be done, but he started the same way he did every day and soon others started helping too.
This picture book is based on the true story of Cornelius Washington who was a sanitation worker in New Orleans. The Author’s Note speaks to his connection with Cornelius’ family and a reporter who had gotten to know him before the storm. In this book, Cornelius’ story is told in folklore style, offering him and his amazing spirit that he displayed every day a space to be honored and appreciated.
Parra’s illustrations play to the heroic feeling of the book, Often showing Cornelius with stars behind his head or rays of the sun. The painted illustrations have a gorgeous roughness to them in texture that also connects the subject to history and makes the entire book feel timeless and sturdy.
An homage to a man who did a humble job with style and energy, this book is also about survival and what it takes to be an everyday hero. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer:The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Bostone Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (InfoSoup)
This biographical picture book is written in verse, singing the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who was at the heart of the civil rights movement. The book begins with Hamer’s childhood in Mississippi as the youngest of twenty children in a sharecropper family. She grew up working in the cotton fields, seeing it for the slavery that it was. School was only held for four months a year, because the children needed to work in the fields in order for their family to survive. Even in the early part of the 1900s, Hamer was taught that black was beautiful and that she was special. She stayed in the south rather than moving north like her siblings, taking care of her mother and getting married. The in the 1960s, voter registration became an issue and Hamer found herself standing up to the system despite the violence and the threats. She joined the movement for voter rights and starting to use her singing voice to bring people together. Soon she was seen as a leader in the movement, running for office, and speaking out for those who did not have a voice. She is an inspiration for today’s Black Lives Matter movement and youth activism in general.
Weatherford’s writing is gorgeous and the verse she uses to tell Hamer’s story is very effective. She is able to directly talk about racism and violence in her poems, never dancing away from the toughest of subjects. Each poem reads as a call to action, a reason to stand up and make sure civil rights are not being abridged. Even the poem where Hamer is beaten by police and other prisoners rings with strength and power. This is a biography of a woman who was immensely determined and strong. She stood up to the system, risked her own life for change, and used her own skills for the sake of the cause.
Alongside the powerful poetry are equally impressive illustrations. The collage art by Holmes is a mix of paper art and paintings. The illustrations are deep colored and tell the story of oppression and then accomplishment. There are illustrations that take the bright colors of Africa and the 1970s and make the pages blaze while others are dark and somber as violence and death cloud the pages.
Important and powerful, this nonfiction picture book shares the story of a woman vital to the civil rights movement. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (InfoSoup)
This picture book celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lillian is a 100-year-old African-American woman who has lived through all of the problems with African Americans voting in the United States. As she climbs the steep hill to her polling place, she remembers all of the steps that led from slavery to being able to openly vote today. She thinks about her great-grandfather who labored as a slave but also lived to see the Civil War come and allow him to vote for the first time. She remembers her grandfather being charged a poll tax and her uncle being asked unanswerable questions before would be allowed to vote. She remembers running from an angry mob of neighbors who didn’t want women voting. She will never forget the cross burning in their yard. She remembers the people who fought for civil rights, who died for civil rights, who marched for everyone’s rights. She climbs that hill, slowly and steadily, until she reaches her polling place where she can vote without fear of being attacked or turned away.
Winter’s prose is musical and passionate. He draws us all close together and then speaks to us of history and voting and America. He tells us of shameful things that must not be forgotten, of heroes who fell and those who were able to keep marching. He tells us all of our duty in subtle ways that are stirring and moving; that we must vote each and every time, even when it is difficult or there is a steep hill to climb. Winter tells a personal story of voting history in the United States, giving us rich robust story telling rather than dry facts. It is a stirring and noteworthy tale.
Evans’ illustrations are superb. His fine lined illustrations show the determination of Lillian, the horrors of slavery, the dangers of voting, and the courage of many to make changes for the better. His pages swirl with color and texture, fill with sunlight, and dazzle with blue sky. The golden page of the cross burning is disturbing in its vividness, the wash of gold not allowing anywhere to hide.
A gorgeous story accompanied by equally lovely illustrations, this historical picture book is one that should be embraced by elementary teachers during any national election. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Schwartz & Wade and Edelweiss.
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (InfoSoup)
John Roy Lynch grew up as a slave in Mississippi, the son of an overseer who tried to free his children from slavery. Unfortunately, his untimely death led to them continuing to be enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation. Lynch found a job, his first paying job, on a steamer ship and worked his way up. At age 17, John Roy went to work for a photographer whose studio was right across from a school. Listening in on the classes and attending night school, John Roy was able to learn to write eloquent letters. He also started being active in politics, buying land, and speaking out. He was appointed Justice of the Peace at age 21. Soon he was elected as the Mississippi Speaker of the House and then in 1872, he became the first African-American US Congressman. Throughout, John Roy Lynch spoke to the needs of the people he represented and the importance of civil rights for all.
Barton provides just enough information for children to understand the time period and the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation. This look at the Reconstruction Period offers a view of an important time in American history, one that is often overlooked in children’s books. The amazing fortitude and resilience of John Roy Lynch keeps this book moving as his own life progresses forward in unexpected ways. Clearly it is his intelligence and gift for communication that carries Lynch forward into a very different life than others around him. More information on Lynch is offered in the final pages of the book with a complete timelines and bibliography.
The illustrations by Tate are done with a light touch, creating a book that depicts darker subjects at time but also infusing the book with a sense of hope and wonder. This makes a book covering such a heavy topic as well as such an important part of history much more appealing and approachable.
An important book focused on an important figure in a dynamic time in American history, this picture book biography will inform new audiences about the potential for both progress and defeat during the Restoration. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (InfoSoup)
The third and final book in the Gaither Sisters trilogy is just as delightful as the first two. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern travel south to Alabama to spend the summer with their grandmother and great-grandmother, Big Ma and Ma Charles. After living in Brooklyn, they are surprised at how slow life is in the country with no stores to visit and little to do to pass the time. Their cousin JimmyTrotter lives on the other side of the creek with Miss Trotter who is the half sister of Ma Charles. But the two sisters don’t speak at all except in messages that the children carry back and forth across the creek. The Gaither sisters learn about their extended family and all of the sorts of people that are part of their heritage, including Native Americans and white people. Delphine is just as hard on Vonetta as she always is, but it may be too much when Vonetta runs away from home. When tragedy strikes, it is up to Delphine to rethink the way that she interacts with her sisters, even when they drive her crazy.
Throughout the trilogy, Williams-Garcia has used these books to offer young readers a glimpse at the lives of African-American people in different parts of the country as well as the discrimination they face. This third book celebrates the various parts of African-American history, including some lesser known pieces like Native Americans owning and selling slaves. Here we also see the KKK and the mixed heritage of some of the more hateful people in a community.
Rippling through these more serious parts of the book are the personalities of all of the characters from the three sisters at its heart to their extended family. There are moments of hilarity mixed into it, creating a book that is a pleasure to read but also has a solidity to it thanks to its clear ties to real history. The dynamics of the sisters and their families is also captured in a realistic and loving way. Themes such as forgiveness, anger and family commitments are all part of this gorgeous read.
Readers who loved the first two books will adore this southern country ending to the series, though we will all mourn not being able to join these three sisters in more adventures. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Gordon Parks had a rough beginning to his life from being born almost stillborn to losing his mother at age 14. He was told by his white teacher that he and the rest of his all-black class would end up as either porters or waiters. Parks did do those jobs, but then he purchased a used camera and everything changed. He started photographing models and then turned his camera towards the struggling families in Chicago and Washington DC. He is pointed towards one specific subject who will create his most famous image, American Gothic, the picture of an African-American cleaning woman standing in front of the American flag with her mop in hand. Parks managed to show racism with a clarity thanks to just picking up a camera at first.
Weatherford keeps this book very friendly with a minimal amount of text in the bulk of the book. She does include an author’s note at the end that fills in more of the extensive career of Parks as a film director and Renaissance man. The focus here in this picture book biography is Parks’ photographic work and the impact he had on exposing racism and poverty in the inner city, showing hard working people who were still in poverty. Make sure to turn to the end of the book to see his photographs and their intense message.
Christoph’s illustrations are stellar. Using a subtle color palette, the images echo the photographs that Park took, but not too closely. Instead they build upon them, showing Parks taking the images and embracing the dark beauty of the back streets of urban spaces. He also beautifully captures emotions and the humanity of Parks’ subjects that also shines in his photographs.
An important picture book biography, this book shows how one person can make a difference and have a voice. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner, illustrated by James Ransome
Told in her own voice, this picture book biography captures the childhood and emergence of Sojourner Truth as an orator and activist. The first pages of the book show the horror of slavery, the loss of family members when they are sold away, and the damage of loss, grief, battery and ownership. Then with her baby in her arms, Sojourner runs away, finding shelter. She eventually fought to get her son back with her, and finding her voice. Moving to New York City, she gains her new name of Sojourner Truth and begins to speak out. From wagon backs to formal lectures and then in print, her words travel and help destroy the institution of slavery across the nation.
Turner weaves Truth’s words into the text, creating poetry that is fiery and honest and burns with indignation about slavery. Using her own voice to narrate the story is a great decision, allowing readers to really see what has built the passion upon which Sojourner Truth draws again and again. The horrors of the loss of twelve members of her family never leaves her and it never leaves the book, as it begins and ends with that focus. The entire book is beautifully drawn and historically accurate. Readers can read the author’s note at the end and teachers will appreciate the book being reviewed for accuracy by experts.
Ransome’s illustrations are luscious and lovely. He shows the hard work, grueling labor of slavery and then with one page of running away, Sojourner Truth expresses freedom in the form of a large bed of her very own, something she has never experienced before. It is an image that is powerful and one that children will understand intuitively. As the book progresses, the images grow in power and strength as she comes into her own.
Strong, poetic and filled with history, this picture book biography of Sojourner Truth will be embraced by schools and public libraries alike. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Violence was a large part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. However in Huntsville, Alabama something quite different happened, quietly and successfully. They managed through cooperation, quiet civil disobedience, and courage to stand up for what was right for all members of their community. There were lunchroom protests where young black people sat at the counters they were not allowed to eat at. There were marches with signs. There were arrests, even one of a mother with an infant that gained national news. There were lovely protests like refusing to purchase new clothes for Easter and instead dressing in blue jeans to deny some stores their business. There were balloons with messages of coming together even as a segregationist ran for governor. There were brave children who attended schools where they were the only people of color. Yet it all happened in a community of support and with no violence at all.
Bass emphasizes throughout her book that there were challenges in the society and reasons for protest. Time and again though just as the reader thinks things will be more rough and confrontational, it abates and progress is made. Her use of details from the other cities in Alabama as well as the national Civil Rights Movement will show children how violent the struggles often were. It is against that backdrop that the progress in Huntsville really shines.
Lewis’s paintings also shine. He captures the strength and determination of those working for their civil rights. On each page there is hope from the children reaching to the sky with their balloons to the one black child in the class and his smile. It all captures both the solemnity of the struggle and the power of achieving change.
Beautifully told and illustrated, this nonfiction picture book offers a compelling story about a community’s willingness to change without violence. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
The author of Out of My Mind returns with a book that takes a hard look at racism in the United States. Stella lives in Bumblebee, North Carolina during the Great Depression. When her little brother wakes her up one dark night, they witness the KKK burning a cross in their town. Their community is segregated, so Stella and her family go to a different school than the white kids in town. It’s smaller and less fancy with one room but also one great teacher. They also can’t use certain stores and many of the white people in town are rude and even violent towards them. Stella’s father is one of the men in town who decide that they will push for their right to vote, even though they know the system is rigged, requiring tests for black people but not for white. Stella gets to witness first hand the ignorance of people in power and their disregard for others, but at the same time there is reason to have hope too.
Draper writes a dynamic story here. She evokes the time period beautifully, allowing readers to really experience the lifestyle, the poverty, and the deep racism of the times. This is not a book that is just darkness though, Draper creates a strong African-American community in Bumblebee. The neighbors look out for one another, help whenever possible, and face the worst of society together as a group. The racism and segregation is presented with an appropriate level of violence for children this age, allowing readers to see that it runs far more deeply than is depicted on the page.
Stella is an extraordinary protagonist. Her struggles with writing are presented cleverly on the page. One immediately sees that this is a girl who struggles with the mechanics of writing like spelling and getting the words out, but once they are on the page she has a unique voice and a poet’s eye. It is a subtle but strong message that if you struggle with something it certainly does not mean you are not gifted in it as well. These passages of writing lighten the book as do the various stories inserted throughout the book, paying homage to the oral traditions but also to the community and its strength.
Powerful and wise, this novel for young readers will expose them to racism after the Civil War and the basis for many of the problems we continue to see today. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.