Grandpa Cacao by Elizabeth Zunon (9781681196404)
A little girl and her Daddy are making her birthday cake, a chocolate one. As they bake the cake, her father tells her about Grandpa Cacao who lives in the Ivory Coast and has a cacao farm. The book looks at the importance of the right soil and weather to grow cacao as well as the skill to know when precisely to harvest the crop. The process of harvest and then scooping out the white beans, curing them in the ground, and then drying them is shown in detail. All the while, the girl and her father are baking together, the smell and taste of the chocolate bridging the two story lines. In the end, as the cake is finished, the little girl gets a special birthday treat.
Zunon’s picture book tells the important tale of where chocolate comes from and the fascinating process of going from farm to product that is not at all what one might expect. The framing of the chocolate farming process by a girl about to celebrate her birthday with a chocolate cake is lovely. It is strengthened even more by her family connection to the Ivory Coast and her grandfather’s farm. The treat at the end makes that even more firmly and tangible for readers.
The illustrations by the author are cleverly done. The little girl’s world is done in full color collages filled with rich touches of patterns and textures. The African farm is done in a more flat format with the people simply white outlines against the landscape. When the two worlds come together, they both become full color and lush.
Everyone loves chocolate and this book explains how it comes to our tables. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
B Is for Baby by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank (9781536201666)
Told in a series of “B” words, this book tells the story of a baby who climbs into a basket of bananas. Unnoticed by her busy brother who has headphones on, the basket is loaded onto the back of his bicycle and he heads off across the African landscape. They pass baobab trees, see a baboon, bird and butterfly. The road is bumpy and carries them across a bridge until they reach Baba’s bungalow where Baby is discovered amid the bananas much to her brother’s surprise. The three enjoy a snack together and then the two children journey back together to their mother.
Once again, Atinuke shows the beauty of Africa through a small child’s eyes. With only the simplest of words, she delights in the naughtiness of the baby climbing into the basket and then gives a merry journey for her to experience. Ending with a cookie, what could be sweeter! The illustrations are bright and large, perfect for sharing aloud with a group of toddlers. Filled with animals, people and sweeping landscapes, the illustrations capture the beauty of Africa and its people.
Another big beautiful book by Atinuke, this one is just right for the littlest ones. Appropriate for ages 1-3.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon by Miranda Paul and Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (9781512449143)
When Tantoh was young, he visited his grandmother’s farm and tried to plant onions on his own. They shriveled and never grew, but it inspired him to learn more about all sorts of things. As a teen, his father got him his how shovel and gardening supplies even though his father was ill. Tantoh is called Farmer by his classmates and takes pride in it, even writing it on his school uniform. His brother encourages him not to be a farmer, wanting him to get a good job in an office with high scores on his exam. But Tantoh is drawn to be a farmer and deliberately fails his exams. He starts working on the land and someone pays for him to go to college and study agriculture. At college, Tantoh contracts typhoid and it takes seven years for him to fully recover. This shows him the value of clean water. He goes to the United States to study, returning to Cameroon to build gardens that will hold water in the soil and a catchment to capture spring water for a village. One project leads to another and now Farmer Tantoh has many young farmers wanting to learn from him.
This nonfiction picture book offers a close and personal look at an environmental hero who changed the face of Cameroon and brought water conservation and clean drinking water to his country. Farmer was clearly pressured as a young man not to follow his dreams of being a farmer, so this book looks at following one’s dreams and having the ability to live the life you wish to lead. The book also looks at barriers to his success such as his battle with typhoid, which also serves to speak to his strength, courage and resilience.
The illustrations in the book are done in mixed media with paper collage, paint, pen and pencil. The images range from the hills of Cameroon to images of Tantoh as a child, student and adult. The pictures are filled with bright colors, strong shapes and vibrant design.
A look at a man who changed his country by following his dream. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Millbrook Press.
Days with Dad by Nari Hong (9781592702336)
Narrated by a little girl, this picture book looks at growing up with a father in a wheelchair. The girl’s father often apologizes for activities he can’t participate in. But the little girl always responds by saying that she prefers other similar activities that they can do together. Her father can’t go ice skating, but they can fish together through the ice. He can’t swim in the sea, but he can build sandcastles with her. He can’t ride bikes, but they can look at the flowers in the park together. Throughout the book, the tone is positive and joyful, showing that life is about what people can do together and the time spent with those you love. Described on the jacket as semi-autobiographical, this book has been listed on IBBY’s 2017 Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities. This book’s illustrations add to the lightness of the story with their playful feel. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Review copy provided by Enchanted Lion.)
Mama Africa by Kathryn Erskine, illustrated by Charly Palmer (9780374303013)
A picture book about the incredible South African singer, Miriam Makeba, who became the voice of fighting against apartheid. Called Mama Africa, she sang to expose the injustice happening around her at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Eventually, she lived in exile in the United States yet never stopped speaking and singing about her home. She spoke before the United Nations to appeal for help. Finally able to return home after apartheid ended, she continued to fight for justice the rest of her life. Erskine lived in South Africa during apartheid and draws from that knowledge in her book. Throughout, there is a celebration of the impact of song and the importance of giving voice to those living under injustice. The art by Palmer is rich and vivid. He offers portraits of people as well as landscapes that capture the fight for freedom. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Review copy provided by Farrar Straus & Giroux.)
That Is My Dream! By Langston Hughes, illustrated by Daniel Miyares (9780399550171)
Miyares turns the poem “Dream Variation” by Langston Hughes into a picture book that shows a segregated town in the 1950s. There are separate drinking fountains for white and black people and the races are separate when they relax as well. Then the book changes with a feeling of whirling and release into a book that shows equality, shared time together and the hope of a day spent in harmony. The book is infused with hope, showing how possibilities of freedom and equality can be realized eventually. The book doesn’t move to the present, instead staying in the 1950s and showing what no segregation would have looked like back then. The illustrations by Miyares are beautiful, filled with deep colors and diversity. A very special book that pairs important poetry with a renewed vision. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Review copy provided by Schwartz & Wade.)
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (9780670785612)
This is the second book in the Akata Witch series, a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. It does not disappoint! The second book continues the story of Sunny, a girl who has become part of the secret Leopard Society. Leopard People like Sunny can work magic, do juju, and cross boundaries into the wilderness, a space that is different from the physical world. As Sunny grows into her powers and learns more skills, she is being haunted by dreams of a burning city that seem to indicate a coming apocalypse. As she works towards her destiny, Sunny realizes that she is once again being hunted by the masquerade Ekwensu. She must journey to the city in her dreams, but the journey is harrowing and the skills she needs hard to come by.
Okorafor combines modern Nigeria with fantasy once again in this second novel. So often second books in series can be disappointing, serving only as a bridge between two stronger novels. This is not the case here. Instead, Okorafor takes readers deeper into Leopard Society, enlarges our understanding of juju and other powers, and shows how real the rules of the society are. The author dances the line between horror and fantasy very effectively, all the while incorporating elements of Nigerian society into the story for a very rich and varied experience.
In this second book, readers will see a more experienced and older Sunny. She still has a lot to learn, not only about her powers but about her family and about the society she has joined. Sunny is a determined and thoughtful heroine whose powers are vital to the story but whose bravery and independence make her the person she needs to be to battle evil. There is no way not to adore her as a protagonist, even as she makes mistakes.
Start with the first in the series, because you don’t want to miss a moment of this intoxicating blend of fantasy, horror and Nigeria. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking Books for Young Readers.
Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)
Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.
Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.
Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.
A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.
City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson (9780399547584)
Tina has returned to the place where her mother was murdered to destroy the man she knows killed her. An experienced thief, she must break into one of the most highly guarded and defended homes in Sangui City, Kenya. But things do not go as planned and Tina is discovered by the son of the family, someone she had once been close childhood friends with. The two of them begin to work together to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder, Tina to prove the father guilty and his son to prove him innocent. Their search for the truth will take them back to Congo, the place that Tina and her mother fled as refugees. Soon Tina is learning more about her mother than she ever knew, pieces to the puzzle of her life and death. Danger is ever-present in their journey and in solving this mystery even more secrets need to be defended and exposed.
From the very first page, Anderson draws readers into this African murder mystery. Filled with tension and threat, this novel also shows the life of a refugee in Africa, the beauty of small village life in the dangerous Congo, the risks of traveling into a country at war, and the wealth that can be made by spilling blood. The setting is amazing, moving from Sangui City and its urban gangs to Congo village life, each is drawn with precision and both are filled with beauty and menace.
Tina is a fully drawn character in search of the truth. She knows who killed her mother and she is driven primarily by revenge. The book’s pacing is exactly right, allowing readers to experience the various settings and Tina’s changing situations fully as each clue and piece of information is revealed leading them onward. Tina is a great mix of intelligence, cunning and force. She is a criminal with a cause, a character that is compellingly written and understandable.
A thriller of a teen novel, this book has a unique setting and one dynamic female protagonist bent on revenge. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Water Princess by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds (InfoSoup)
Gie Gie imagines herself to be a princess with a kingdom as big as the African sky. She can tell the wind when to blow, the grass when to sway. But she cannot move the water closer to their home. Every day, Gie Gie and her mother walk to get water, a walk that takes almost the entire day. As they walk, they sing and dance together, stop under the shade of a large tree for a snack. When they reach the water, others are there and Gie Gie plays with her friends as her mother waits in line. Soon it is their turn and they start their long walk back balancing the water in pots on their heads. Back home, Gie Gie finally gets a drink of the precious water and falls asleep, knowing she must make the same walk the next day.
This picture book is based on the childhood of supermodel Georgie Badiel, who has a foundation working to bring clean water to Burkina Faso and other African countries. Verde writes with a poetic touch throughout, the prose light as a breeze carrying the story forward. There is no lecture here about clean water, rather it is a look at the hard work and endurance it takes to bring clean water to African villages.
The illustrations by Reynolds are done in his signature style with a flowing beauty that works particularly well here. He uses deep colors that show the dry landscape in yellows and oranges that are occasionally punctuated with greens and blues, the colors of water and hope.
A light feeling picture book that has a deep story to tell, this is a compelling read. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from ARC received from GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith (InfoSoup)
This riff on the Little Red Riding Hood story is filled with humor and twists that will delight. Little Red’s auntie has woken up with spots and so Little Red must cross the Savannah to bring her some medicine and some doughnuts. Little Red makes it past all sorts of animals until she stops in the shad of a tree. That’s when the Very Hungry Lion appears. When he asks Little Red where she is off to, the Lion hatches a plan that involves pretending to be her auntie and then eating both Little Red and her aunt. Little Red though is not fooled at all. So when she sees the Lion in her auntie’s clothes and in her bed, Little Red launches into action. Soon the Lion has a new hairstyle, has brushed his teeth and changed into a ruffled dress. The Lion though has had enough and roars. Little Red does not back down and soon a friendship is starting, with some strict rules in place.
Little Red is a great heroine. She is smart and fearless, facing down a hungry lion with stern warnings. It is also the humor of this book that works so well. The braiding of the Lion’s hair is a wonderful moment as is his changing clothes once again at Little Red’s insistence. It is in those moments that story becomes something new and fresh and where the audience will understand that this is a very different Little Red Riding Hood than in the original tale.
Smith’s art is zany and bright. The look on the Lion’s face is lovely, particularly when Little Red is forcing him to do things. Little Red pops on the page with her red dress and arching braids. She is particularly small next to the huge lion and still manages to hold her own on each page. Filled with humor and color, these are images that will work with groups of children very well.
One to roar about, add this to your twists on well-known tales or in any story time about lions. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.