I Know a Bear by Mariana Ruiz Johnson
A little girl gets to know a bear who comes from somewhere that he calls The Land of Bears. Breakfasts there are sweet as honey, the land is vast, and the rivers are lovely for swimming. Even the naps are better there, they go on for months. But he can never return there, since he is in a zoo. So the little girl has an idea, something that will let him feel a connection with the wilderness and something that she can set free. It’s a powerful idea too.
Johnson tells this story in very short sentences, which one might think would be terse but instead feel slow and Zen-like. It is a book about a girl who is forging her own connections with animals, making her own decisions too. There are no adults in the story, just one little girl and one huge hairy bear. It is a book about small choices making a big difference in the world. It is simple and luminous.
Johnson’s illustrations have a wonderful light touch to them. The pages with the huge bear can be dark and filled with fur, but then the book opens to a new page filled with white and lightness. They are studies in contrast but also create a book that is a joy to read through with changes of feel from one page to the next.
An empowering story about one little girl and her connection with one big bear and the beauty of freedom. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.
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.
Under the Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke, illustrated by London Ladd
Told in free verse, this picture book is the story of how the first contraband camp formed during the Civil War. It all started with three runaway slaves who escaped across a river to a Union-held fort. Though the Confederate Army tried to demand their return, the general at the fort declared them “contraband of war” and offered them protection and a place to live. The three were quickly joined by a flood of people crossing the line into Union territory and they began to build a home for themselves near the fort. The freedom tree is the Emancipation Oak which stood witness to the events that unfolded, including the Emancipation Proclamation, which set all of the residents of the camp free.
VanHecke’s verse is loose and beautiful. She captures the danger the slaves faced in crossing the Confederate line, the risks they took asking for shelter, and the clever solution found by the general. She offers an author’s note in prose to give more historical context to the camp and the Emancipation Oak.
Ladd’s illustrations are lush and detailed. His paintings capture the hope of emancipation, the darkness of escape by water and night, and the beauty of the oak. The illustrations clearly honor the first three men who escaped to the fort, showing them as they wait for the judgment of whether they must return to slavery or not.
A little-known part of the history of the Civil War, this book in verse pays homage to the courage of the men who created the contraband camp. Appropriate for ages 6-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.
The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle, award-winning author of verse novels, continues her stories of Cuba. In this book, she explores the life of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, also known as Tula, who becomes a revolutionary Cuban poet. Raised to be married off to save the family financially, Tula even as a young girl relates more closely with slaves and the books she is reading than with girls of her own age and her own social standing. As she reads more and more, sheltered by both her younger brother and the nuns at the convent, Tula starts to explore revolutionary ideas about freedom for slaves and for women. In a country that is not free, Tula herself is not free either and is forced to confront an arranged marriage, the brutality of slavery, and find her own voice.
Engle writes verse novels with such a beauty that they are impossible to put down. Seemingly light confections of verse, they are actually strong, often angry and always powerful. Here, Engle captures the way that girls are asked to sacrifice themselves for their families, the importance of education for young women, and the loss of self. She doesn’t shy away from issues of slavery either. At it’s heart though, this novel is about the power of words to free people, whether that is Tula herself, her brother or a family slave and friend.
Highly recommended, this is another dazzling and compelling novel from a master poet. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
In 1856, John Price and two other slaves escaped to Ohio and freedom. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was in effect and even free states were required to allow slave owners to capture escaped slaves anywhere in the United States. John and his friend Frank spent the winter in Oberlin, Ohio, a hub of Underground Railroad activity. They decided to stay and not travel to the safety of Canada. So when a group of slave catchers came to Oberlin specifically hunting for John and Frank, the residents of the city had no legal grounds to help the two men. When John was captured though, the city rose up against the slave catchers, forcing a showdown that would be one of the defining moments in fueling the Civil War.
Filled with informational facts, this book reads more like a fictional story thanks to its inherent drama. It begins with John Price’s escape across the ice on stolen horses, continues through the Underground Railroad but the most amazing part is the final showdown, where your heart almost stops with the bravery and daring the Rescuers demonstrate. Fradin offers just the right mix of information and heroism.
Velasquez’s illustrations add to the dramatic feel of the narrative with their deep rich colors, drawn guns and historical details. There are so many gorgeous night images filled with danger but also with hope.
This is a nonfiction picture book that is sure to inform children about an aspect of slavery that they will not have heard of as well as a tale of what a group of brave citizens can do. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Collier marries the famous poem by Hughes with the story of the African-American Pullman porters, who served the wealthy white patrons aboard trains. The poem speaks to the dream of freedom and equality that we are moving towards but have not yet attained in America. It tells of servants sent to eat in the kitchen but also that in the future that will change and no one will again be sent to eat separately. Collier’s illustrations depict the real work of the Pullman porters and the rhythm of the train seems to appear in Hughes’ poem too. These men who worked in a racist world long after slavery was abolished are a fitting match to this strong poem that sings.
Hughes was able to write with such spare poetry, that it gives a strong vehicle for illustrations. Collier built an incredible story around those lines, one of porters and a small boy who has new chances in the modern world. He wraps his illustrations in the flag, playing with stars and stripes and the blue of the open sky throughout the book. There is a gravity, a seriousness to his work that is truly fine. It lifts up to the level of the poem, creating a harmony that is very special.
This is an extraordinary picture book about freedom, African Americans, and the struggle that still goes on every day for equality. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
A young artist paints a blue horse running against a yellow sky, then continues to paint animals in amazing colors. There is a red crocodile, a yellow cow, a pink rabbit, and an orange elephant. The book speaks powerfully and simply to the spirit of creativity, the ability to change the world through art, and the right to express yourself. This becomes even more clear as the book ends with Carle’s own childhood experiences in Nazi Germany where he first saw the forbidden work of Franz Marc who painted Blue Rider. This is not a picture book biography, but rather a statement of support for all artists who see the world in unique ways.
Carle’s art is really the center of the book with the words just naming the color and animal. As I read it, I could see it being used very nicely in elementary art classes to encourage children to break away from the norm. In toddler story times, it could also be used to learn colors and animals perhaps even with some animal noises thrown in to add to the fun.
This is a book that will speak to many ages, adapt well to projects and conversation, or simply be used as a color and animal book. It is infinitely flexible, wonderfully expressive, and makes a powerful statement. Appropriate for ages 2-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel Books.
You can also check out the auction of art by artists and celebrities that was inspired by this picture book.
Nini Lost and Found by Anita Lobel
This second book about Nini the cat follows the award-winning Nini Here and There that won a Caldecott Honor in 2007. In this book, Nini discovered that the door to the house has been left open and escaped out into the garden. While the house was cozy, the outdoors was also fun. There were grasses, flowers, and an entire woods to explore. But when night falls, the woods became more frightening, darker and filled with noises that could be large animals coming after her. Nini hid under a tree, but realized that she could not just stay there. That’s when she heard voices calling her from the house. With a burst of courage, Nini ran home, through the open door that closed behind her. Back to the familiar things and smells and food. She was very happy to be home and safe, for now.
Lobel’s deep colored illustrations show both the comforts of home and the enticements of the outdoors as equally welcoming. The richness of the autumnal landscape brings a warmth to the outdoors, inviting both Nini and readers to explore. Children will understand Nini’s wish to escape, wander and explore. They will also understand her conflicting desire for safety and warmth. It is a gentle take on the theme of running away from home. When the book turns darker with nightfall, Lobel’s color palette turns to deep blues, blacks and browns. The contrast is distinct and makes for a more chilling moment when Nini is hiding and scared. The contrast is clear and effective.
This simple picture book will be enjoyed by children for many different reasons. Some for the story of a cat, others will see the parallel with children running away, and others will enjoy the adventure at night in the dark. I look for books that can be enjoyed by many types of children for different reasons. This is most certainly one of them. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Knopf.
The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
I have adored Engle and her poetry since first reading her Poet Slave of Cuba. This historical novel told in verse tells the story of early Swedish feminist Fredrika Bremer and her travels in Cuba. While in Cuba she inspires and changes the lives of two women, a slave named Cecilia and a wealthy young woman named Elena. At first amazed and shocked by the freedom Fredrika demonstrates, Elena warms to her as she begins to understand that the future could be different than just an arranged marriage. Cecilia finds in Fredrika a woman who looks beyond her slave status and a role model for hope. Told in Engle’s radiant verse, this is another novel by this splendid author that is to be treasured.
As with all of her novels, Engle writes about the duality of Cuba: the dark side and the light, the beauty and the ugliness. Once again she explores the horrific legacy of slavery without flinching from its truth. Against that background of slavery, she has written a novel of freedom. It is the story of a woman who refused to be defined by the limitations of her birth and her sex, instead deciding to travel and write rather than marry. Fredrika is purely freedom, beautifully contrasted with the two women who are both captured in different ways and forced into lives beyond their control.
Beautifully done, this book is an excellent example of the verse novel. Each poem can stand on its own and still works to tell a cohesive story. At times Engle’s words are so lovely that they give pause and must be reread. This simply deepens the impact of the book. Engle also uses strong images in her poems. In this book, fireflies are an important image that work to reveal light and dark, as well as freedom and captivity.
Highly recommended, this author needs to be read by those who enjoy poetry, those who enjoy history, and those who simply are looking for great writing. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.