Waking Brain Cells Anniversary


I’m celebrating 17 years of children’s lit blogging today! Every year this gives me time to take a breath and think about librarianship, children’s books, and how I use my time. In past years, I’ve gone through rolling periods of doubt, of thinking about stopping, of doing something else, reading differently and not critically.

This year hasn’t been like that. Instead I have felt driven to share, to keep creating content about books that I love. It’s a way for me to keep from drowning in the bad news of COVID, to keep hope alive that change may actually happen around black lives and policing, to say that black children and children of color deserve to see themselves in books and white children must start learning that all are equal. One powerful way to do that is to have books that represent children of all races, all faiths, all cultures, all sexual orientations, all genders. Books that celebrate children and teens and their experiences in our world.

I will continue to highlight these books on my blog. Books that share experiences, books that ask us to think, to learn, to build bridges or to burn them down. Now is the time to ask yourself what you spend your time on, what you put your voice behind, what you need to learn, how you need to listen. I have work to do, and I pledge to do it.

Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee

Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee

Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee, illustrated by Pascal Campion (9780525644620)

When Auntie Clara can’t watch Daniel while his parents go to work at night, he goes along with them to their janitorial job. Daniel had been warm and snuggly in his bed, but had to get dressed and ride downtown. As his parents get their tools and equipment ready to go, they begin to tell him about The Paper Kingdom, which is the land that they clean every night. The throne room is a large room with a long table with papers strewn everywhere. The king is nowhere to be seen. His parents warn Daniel to not upset the queen and to be on the lookout for dragons who seem to like hiding in the bathrooms. Daniel gets upset when he sees how much cleaning work all of the kingdom has left for his parents. They encourage him to instead focus on becoming the paper king in the future and ruling differently. 

In her author’s note, Rhee tells of her own childhood as a daughter of night janitors and being taken with them to work sometimes. The playful world created by the parents in the book is warm and loving. Yet it also subtly speaks to the role of power and wealth in the system in a way that children will understand. The hard work by Daniel’s parents is emphasized throughout the picture book with the parents doing physical labor and sneezing and rubbing sore muscles. 

The illustrations also emphasize the extent of the workload of the parents, the sweat pouring from them and them often working on hands and knees. The imaginative playfulness is also shown with the red dragons lurking around. 

A winning look at parents who work nights. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House.

Cast Away: Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Cast Away Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Cast Away: Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye (9780062907691)

By the Young People’s Poet Laureate, this collection of poems shines a fierce light on the garbage and litter we create and toss away. The poems tie litter to larger environmental concerns as well as American politics in the time of anti-truth and fake news. Some poems question whether technology is helping us or not too. This is a collection that is thought provoking and insistent that we begin to pay attention to the large and small choices we are making each day and figure out how we too can make a difference and start picking up our own litter, both physical and figurative.

Nye has written a collection of poems with a strong political viewpoint that demands attention. Yet she never veers into lecturing readers, rather using the power of her words to make us all think differently about our privilege on this planet, how we abuse it, and how to restore balance to the world, our lives and our politics. The poems move from one to the next with a force of nature, almost like wandering your own garbage-strewn path and engaging with it. Sometimes you may lack the equipment, but the hope is that your own fingers start twitching to pick things up too. 

A strong collection that is provocative and tenacious. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

Review: Tanna’s Owl by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley

Tanna’s Owl by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, illustrated by Yong Ling Kang (9781772272505)

Based on the story of the owl one of the author’s cared for as a child, this picture book offers a glimpse of life in the Arctic as an Inuit family. Tanna’s father came back from hunting with a baby owl. It was so ugly, it was somehow also cute. The owl had to be fed two or three times a day, so Tanna and her siblings caught lemmings to feed it. The owl, named Ukpik (or owl in Inuktut), lived in her father’s workshop. When the owl was hungry she would stomp her feet, sway back and forth, and chomp her beak. Soon Ukpik wanted even more to eat and everyone was tired of catching lemmings, so they started to feed her other types of meat, including caribou and fish. Her beak was very sharp, so now she had to be fed with gloves on. When summer ended, Tanna had to return to school in another community. She didn’t return home until the next summer. That’s when she found out that Ukpik had been set free. But maybe the large white owl that she saw around their home was Ukpik coming back to visit.

The authors clearly share both sides of caring for a wild animal. There is the initial joy of learning about the animal and starting to be able to understand their needs and ways of communication. Then there is the drudgery of the ongoing care. At the same time, there is a delight in being that close to a wild creature, of knowing it needs to learn to fly away someday, and knowing you are helping in some way. The book also shows modern Inuit life complete with an unusual way of attending school. 

The art is large and bold with the images fully filling both of the pages. Readers will get to see the transformation of the owl from small and gray to a graceful white bird. They will also get glimpses of the Inuit home and the wide-open setting of the Arctic.

An inspiring picture book for kids who dream of caring for wild animals themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Inhabit Media.

2020 Rise: A Feminist Book Project

The Amelia Bloomer Project will now be known as Rise: A Feminist Book Project for ages 0-18. The project continues to be part of the Feminist Task Force and the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. Here are the Top Ten books chosen for 2020:

At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell, Illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre

A Boy Like You by Frank Murphy, Illustrated by Kayla Harren

Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, Illustrated by Hatem Aly

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, Illustrated by Tonya Engel

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Surviving the City, Vol. 1 by Tasha Spillett and Natasha Donovan

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mjia

What Do You Do With a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

2020 Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media Award


Molly of Denali by PBS Kids


Seek by iNaturalist

States of Matter by Tinybop

2020 Pura Belpre Award for Text


Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez


Lety Out Loud by Angela Cervantes

The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcarcel

Planting Stories by Anika Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar

Soldiers for Equality by Duncan Tonatiuh

2020 Coretta Scott King Author Awards


New Kid by Jerry Craft


The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Look Book Ways by Jason Reynolds


2020 Youth Media Awards Liveblog

I’ll once again be liveblogging the YMAs. Looking forward to cheering, crying and loving the winners and honor books.