The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (9781328780966)
Two amazing book creators come together in this nonfiction picture book celebrating the resilience, talents and perseverance of African-Americans throughout history. The text of the book is a poem by Newbery-medalist Alexander that leads readers through the horrors of slavery to athletes and artist. The black Civil War soldiers carry forward into the Civil Rights Movement and the tragedies that accompanied it. It touches on police violence towards African Americans and moves forward to continue to celebrate those that excelled despite the odds, changing America as they did so. The poem ends with a call for all of the children of color to realize that this is them too.
Alexander’s poem is a powerful call to remember the beginnings in slavery, the battles along the way, and the impact of continuing to hope and dream despite what America has done. It calls for hope and inspiration, it calls for action. And it does not shy away from modern or historical issues, placing them right in front of the reader. His words are influenced by other great African-American writers too, paying homage to those who went before.
The award-winning illustrator and author, Nelson depicts so many historical figures on the pages of this book. Some are individual portraits, standing strong against the stark white backgrounds. Others are groupings of people and readers can recognize many of them on sight but will need to refer to the appendix for others. Nelson’s images are stirring in their beauty and the fierceness he captured his subjects.
This one will win awards, let’s hope it’s a Caldecott for Nelson! Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) by Gary Golio, illustrated by Ed Young (9780763697617)
Growing up on the streets of London, Charlie Chaplin was raised by a single mother who performed as a singer. At age five, Charlie himself started to perform in place of his mother as her voice quit. The family ended up in the poorhouse and when they managed to get back out, Charlie went to school. That was where he learned of his love of attention and the spotlight. At age nine, Charlie joined a boys theater troupe and among other jobs, he worked his way up on stage. Eventually, he made his way to the United States. He starred in a movie but when people in the industry saw how young he was, they doubted him. With one clever costume choice though, Charlie Chaplin invented his iconic tramp character.
Golio’s poetic approach to this nonfiction picture book suits the subject completely. It has a sense of lightness and playfulness with plenty of optimism in the face of hardship. Even as Charlie’s childhood turns bleak, there are moments of light and wonder too. The writing is rich and invites readers to better understand the subject and where he came from. I’d recommend sharing some Chaplin clips with children so they can watch the genius at work. Young’s illustrations are exceptional. The images are bold and full of strong graphical elements. Using colorful silhouettes, they play with light and dark, whimsy and reality.
A mix of humor and sadness, just as Chaplin would have wanted it. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz (9781499807035)
In the aftermath of World War II, Osaka remains devastated. Food is scarce with bad harvests and rationing. The luckiest people stand in long lines for bowls of ramen. When Ando sees this, he realizes that something must be done to help people. He decides to dedicate his life to food, first opening a salt business and eventually following his memories of those hungry people to figure out how to make instant ramen. It was a long process of invention, trial and error. Once he created the perfect noodles, he moved on to trying to figure out how to create the broth too. He tried many things and continued to fail until he saw his wife frying tempura and was inspired to fry his noodles first. Eureka!
This nonfiction picture book offers a frank and fascinating look at the process of the invention of instant ramen. From the original inspiration through all of the mistakes and trials to the final result. The book has a great pacing, lingering over the more touching moments of inspiration, zooming through years where Ando had other priorities, and then slowing once again to explore the experimental process of invention.
The illustrations are completely appealing and often have a broad sense of humor included. They have a sense of motion and cinematic approach, particularly while Ando is inventing the ramen. Using panels, the ideas flow quickly and fail just as fast. The result is a cleverly designed book that inspires.
Just as satisfying as a warm bowl of ramen, this is a delicious read. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Bloom Boom! by April Pulley Sayre (9781481494724)
An ideal book to read as spring arrives, this picture book focuses on flowers emerging as the seasons change. Close-up photographs are paired with more distant landscapes to show both the details of the plants and flowers and also the impact of a large group of flowers blooming in different habitats. Stalks, flowers, leaves and more are shown. The photographs also capture the growth of the emerging plants. The book then moves on to the flowers specifically, celebrating their colors and shapes. It also shows the insects that visit the flowers and other wildlife around.
Sayre specializes in simple nonfiction books about nature with great photography. Here, she has created a book that must be shared aloud. It has a strong rhythm and structure to the text with a refrain of “bloom boom!” with which children will love to join in. The photographs are filled with color and details. They invite readers to look closely and are large enough to share with a group.
Another winning nature picture book from a master book creator. Appropriate for ages 2-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Beach Lane Books.
Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (9781682630051)
As a child, Isabella Bird was not well. She spent much of her time with aches and pains stuck indoors. Then her doctor had an idea that fresh air might do her good. She traveled on horseback with her father and realized that she loved to explore. However, Victorian England was not conducive to a woman traveling on her own, and Isabella once more fell ill. Once again, she was prescribed travel and set off on a journey to Canada and the United States. When she returned, triumphant and with many stories, she was encouraged to write a book. This set her off on a lifetime of travels and adventures around the world and writing books that captivated nineteenth-century readers.
Mortensen demonstrates how very stifling life in the 1800s were for women and girls. Happily, Bird was able to discover her own passion for travel and adventure. The book tells stories of her travels and the harrowing situations she found herself in, like climbing volcanoes, surviving severe cold, and dangling from a cliff by her skirt. Scattered throughout the book are excerpts from Bird’s own writing that show how stirring and evocative her prose was.
The illustrations in the book are done with simple lines that really capture the action and at times the boredom of Bird’s life. Bird’s journal, with her on all of her travels, features heavily in the illustrations as it drops over cliffs, loses pages to the wind, or has Bird writing in amazing situations.
A look at a woman who did not allow social conventions to slow her down, this is an inspirational story of following one’s bliss. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Peachtree.
Trees by Verlie Hutchens, illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong (9781481447072)
Celebrate trees in this book of verse with each poem focused on one type of tree. There are willows, oaks, birch, aspen and more. A total of fourteen trees are highlighted here in free verse, each one embracing the unique nature of that tree with clarity and brevity. The poems are only a few lines long, yet the capture the tree perfectly. The poems are more about the inherent nature of the tree than really describing them physically. There are trees that pride themselves on their straight arrow-like height, others that are filled with giggles in spring. Each poem suits the tree its about, changing in tone to match.
The art by Tsong is exceptional. Some of the taller trees are done so that the book must be turned to read the words and see the tree upright. Others are shown in a full landscape whether budding in spring or standing against a snowstorm. The illustrations are done using digital collage with hand-done elements. They are filled with lines that swirl and move, creating breezes on the page and rings on the branches and trunks of the trees.
A beautiful book of poetry about the trees in our world. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Beach Lane Books.
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson (9780698195264)
On the 20th anniversary year of her ground-breaking teen novel Speak, Anderson has written a searing book of poetry that chronicles her own journey to having a voice and speaking out. Thanks to the subject matter of Speak, Anderson is trusted by many of the teens she speaks before to hear their own stories of abuse and rape. Surely over the decades, something has changed. Has it? In this nonfiction work of verse, Anderson opens up about her own childhood and parents, her own experience with sexual assault and rape, the sexual harassment of college campuses from students and professors alike, and so much more. Her book is a call to action, to rage alongside her, and to not be silent.
Anderson’s poetry slams into you like a freight train. She does have some poems that are subtle and more introspective, but the ones that rush and insist are the best here. Her anger fuels this entire book, her call to be better, to raise sons who do right, to speak and shout and yell. She is so honest on these pages, allowing the teens and others who have spoken to her to have space in the book too. In a book that could have felt like too much pain, it is instead action oriented and forceful.
Anderson’s verse is incredibly skilled. She tells poignant stories, both her own and other people’s. She shares insights, yells at those she evaded once, demands changes and shows how very vital one angry voice can be for change. This is a book that every woman should read, teens and adults. It’s one to return to for fuel to fight on when you are spent.
Brilliant, courageous and heart breaking, this book is one that belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 14-adult.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Penguin Young Readers.
Snowman – Cold = Puddle: Spring Equations by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Micha Archer (9781580897983)
As winter turns to spring, changes happen all around. Refreshingly, this book looks at those changes through a mix of poetry and science. In the first pages, the differences between poetry and science are pointed out in a way that makes perfect sense. Subjects like hibernation, streams, wildlife, maple syrup, flowers, wind, bees, and clouds are all explored. The poetry is entirely in equation form like the title, swiftly capturing the essence of something rather like a haiku but in an even briefer format. Readers are encouraged to see poetry and science all around them.
Salas plays with the poetic form here, creating a mathematical poetry style that is entirely joyous to read. Because of the brevity of the form, the narrative is particularly necessary for some of the poems to make sense for readers. The narrative is also brief and focused, explaining the science behind what we see in nature.
The illustrations by Archer are done in oils and collage. They are filled with deep colors of spring sky, blooming flowers, pond water and other parts of nature. Layered and filled with textures too, the illustrations are rich and saturated.
A winning mix of poetry and science, this is a book that captures the wonder of spring. Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Charlesbridge.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar (9780062748683)
The deep impact and life of librarian Pura Belpre is shown in this picture book biography. The first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, Pura entered the job with a deep understanding of her native folklore and the power of storytelling with children. But the shelves of the library did not have any of the Puerto Rican tales. So Pura sets off to fix that as well as demonstrating ways to tell stories using puppets. Soon her first book is published and she can use it when she travels to different library branches to share her stories. Pura gets married to a musician and the two of them travel to different cities to perform his music and her stories. When her husband dies, Pura returns to New York City to discover that the stories she planted years ago have germinated something bigger.
Denise writes with a tone of wonder as she tells of this librarian who created her own way to tell the stories she loved. The text is infused with Spanish in a way that allows for comprehension and also clearly ties this book to its Puerto Rican subject. The text reads like poetry, gamboling across the page filled with activity and Pura’s own decisiveness.
The illustrations are rich and vibrant. They depict the library, Pura’s storytelling with children, and the subject matter of her stories. Filled with textures and deep colors, the illustrations pay close attention to the time period of the book and yet have a playful lightness to them as well.
A strong picture book biography of a remarkable librarian. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.