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.
March: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
This is the first book in a planned series of graphic novels that follow the life of Congressman John Lewis and his work in the civil rights struggle. This first book opens with President Obama’s inauguration day and then flashes back to critical points throughout Lewis’ life. It tells the story of his connection to animals on the farm, particularly chickens. It also shows him as a young minister and his determination to stay in school and then to attend college. Readers get to witness the violence of the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement including many pivotal moments in history like the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters.
This is one powerful graphic novel. The writing is sterling and strong. It shines with an honest portrayal of historical events from someone who did not just witness them, but fought the battles personally. The book clearly explains the world of the 1950s and 1960s, making sure that modern readers understand the dangers of the times and the differences. It is both a historical book but also one that is important for modern teens to understand how far we have come and how far we have to go.
Powell’s art is stellar. It is stirring art that evokes history with a fresh eye. He creatively uses light and dark, playing with words across it at times, other times allowing the darkness to take control. There is a sense of witnessing history throughout the book in both the words and the art.
An impressive graphic novel for teens, this book shines light on the Civil Rights Movement. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper
When it’s time for Max to head home from his Granpa’s house, Max is very sad. But his grandfather reassures him by saying “That ol’ moon will always shine for you…on and on!” All the way home in the car, Max watches the moon as it travels along with them. When they get home though, the moon has disappeared and Max once again feels sad and misses his grandfather. As Max is alone in his bed that night, he looks out at the dark night with no moon. As he watches, the moon returns from behind the clouds and Max once again feels connected to his Granpa.
Cooper takes a very simple story of grandfather and grandson and makes it memorable with his amazing illustrations. The story resonates with the connection of the two main characters and their love for one another. The symbol of the moon and its light connecting them makes the book luminous and almost magical. I appreciate a children’s picture book that is not just about an African-American child and family, but one that shows a loving male figure.
A large part of that magic are the illustrations that glow with the white-gold light of the moon. Cooper plays with light and dark throughout the book. Even on the pages without the moon shining, there are sources of light and shadow that are expressive and lovely.
A strong African-American family is celebrated in this picture book that would add another level to any moon-centered storytime. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel Books.