Respect: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison (9781534452282)
Told in a similar format to her signature song R-E-S-P-E-C-T, each double-page spread explores another important word in Franklin’s life. The book begins with her family’s move to Detroit and Aretha being raised in the middle of gospel and church. She is incredibly gifted musically, cutting her first gospel record at age 14. She becomes an R&B superstar, rising to the tops of the charts. She supports the civil rights movement with her voice, offering free concerts. She is there to sing President Obama into office. The book ends with plenty of RESPECT for all she has accomplished.
Weatherford’s clever use of single words, spelled out like the song, really forms a strong structure for this picture book. She keeps the book tightly focused and her words to a minimum, allowing the pace of Franklin’s own life and fame to propel the book forward.
The illustrations are gorgeous, the paintings singing with pinks and golds. Morrison uses interesting perspectives in his images, allowing Aretha to be the center of each, showing her changing style and the beauty of her powerful voice.
A fitting tribute for a queen. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron (9781328635181)
Maya has started noticing strange things happening at school and around her South Side Chicago neighborhood. Cracks appear, black lightning forms, and time freezes for others near her. Her best friends try to help her figure out what is happening: one thinks it might be paranormal and ghosts which he loves, and the other believes that it can be explained by science. Maya’s father travels regularly for work, but when she follows him he doesn’t seem to be heading for the airport, instead vanishing right in front of her as if he was swallowed by the shadows. Soon Maya discovers the truth, that her father is a god-like orisha who protects the veil between their world and the Dark. That makes Maya (and her two best friends) half-orisha or godlings. When her father doesn’t return from the Dark, Maya and her friends use their budding powers to enter the Dark themselves and rescue him. But things are not that simple as the human world itself is threatened by the Lord of Shadows.
Barron blends modern American Midwestern life with African legends into one amazing world where gods walk among humans, veils obscure parallel worlds, and dangers emerge from darkness. The Chicago neighborhood is full of gods and godlings, all black and brown characters who create a real community. The world building offers explanations of the various legendary creatures that the characters encounter, woven nicely into the narrative.
Maya and her friends are a great team, offering a mix of beliefs in paranormal, African magic, and science. The three of them also always have each other’s backs, using their powers to help, their intelligence to solve the puzzles they face, and their care for one another and their community as a foundation.
A great middle-grade fantasy with African origins and strong characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HMH Books for Young Readers.
Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (9781943147724)
A little girl tells her mother that she won’t be going back to school because no one could say her name, not even her teacher. So her mother explains that names are actually songs, and offers various examples, each accompanied by phonetic help in pronouncing them. The little girl goes on to explain the bullying behavior of some of the other students, pretending to choke on her name. Her mother explains that some names are not pronounced in the throat, but in the heart. Some of the children at school were scared of her name too, but her mother explains that certain names contain fire because they are so strong. What about the children who said her name was made up? Names come from dreamers who create new names when old ones were stolen, explains her mother. The next day, the little girl heads back to school, ready to sing her name for her teacher and class.
This picture book is completely inspiring, both for children with unique or unusual names but also for teachers and classmates to help lead everyone to inclusion of diversity in their classrooms. I love the help in pronouncing the rainbow of names shared in the story, particularly when that same pronunciation help extends to names that are not unusual such as Benjamin, Olivia and Ms. Anderson. It’s a clever way to show that we all have interesting names and we have learned to pronounce them all.
The illustrations show a diverse class of children in an urban setting as the little girl and her mother walk home together. As her confidence in her name grows, the world around becomes filled with colors, streaks of pinks and golds, clouds of pastel. These same bursts of cloud and fire return when she goes to school, declaring her griot-inspired name for everyone: Kora-Jalimuso.
A book that shows how powerful inclusion is, simply by saying someone’s name with care and conviction. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Innovation Press.
The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (9781368053297)
Marva gets how important voting is and how voting has been impacted by racism for decades, so she is up early to make sure she votes before school starts. Duke is up early too, keeping focused on his band’s first paying gig that night and getting his voting done too. But when Duke gets to his polling place, he can’t vote since he isn’t registered there. Marva sees this happen and the two of them go to the voting precinct that Duke should be registered at. But nothing is simple in voting or dating as their lives collide with Marva angry at her white boyfriend for deciding not to vote in the election, Marva’s celebrity cat going missing, and Duke coping with the memories of his dead brother that being with Marva brings up. Still, the two of them are a great team, traveling the city, discovering voter suppression firsthand, and still managing a touch of romance along the way.
Colbert has written a marvelous romantic political novel here. She demonstrates clearly for teen readers that voter suppression in the black community is still active and can impact them as voters at any time. From long lines to closed polls to running out of ballots, each incident underlines how civil rights are being infringed. Wisely Colbert allows that to be significant in the story line but also fills in with an engaging new romance between two people who may approach politics differently but deeply believe in the same things.
The two main characters are completely delightful. Marva is driven and full of passion for fighting back, voting and activism. Duke has lost a brother to gun violence, a brother who was a community activist. Wonderfully, Duke is not dismissive of Marva’s passion, instead he marvels at it, showing his own dedication to voting and also to his music as the day continues. The pair together are magic with their snappy conversation, teasing and humor.
Political and romantic, this book is also a clarion call to vote and get involved. Appropriate for ages 15-19.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Disney-Hyperion.
The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert (9780316456388)
Alberta has lived in the small town of Ewing Beach her entire life. She’s one of the only Black kids in the entire middle school, so when another Black girl just her age moves into the old bed and breakfast in her neighborhood, Alberta is thrilled. Alberta does have a best friend, but Laramie doesn’t understand some of the things that Alberta experiences, particularly with Nicolette, a bully who makes sly comments that imply that Alberta is different or gets special treatment due to her race. As seventh grade starts, Laramie gets closer with Nicolette and the popular group of kids while Alberta finds herself spending more time with Edie, the new girl. When Edie and Alberta discover a series of old journals in the bed and breakfast, they find themselves untangling a mystery that reveals haunting secrets about race and identity.
This is Colbert’s first middle-grade book and she brings the skill she has shown in her award-winning novels for teens to this new audience. The book embraces difficult subjects but also shows how having a strong family and sense of identity eases even hard conversations and situations. The book deals very directly with race and racism, having gay parents and a complicated family structure, and divorce. It also explores middle grade friendships and their tensions with empathy and solid advice.
Through the two main characters of Alberta and Edie, readers get to experience different sorts of Black girls. Alberta wears bright colors and loves to surf, spending lots of time at the beach. Edie who is from Brooklyn, wears black goth clothing and loves to read. They are both far from being stereotypical in any way, something that shouldn’t need to be said about today’s books but is also still noteworthy. The adults in the book show the same differences and exude a sense of warmth and support.
A great middle grade read about family, friendships and race. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices edited by S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed, illustrated by Iman Rasheed (9781419740831)
Edited by two award-winning Muslim authors, this collection of short stories focus upon the celebration of Eid. The stories come from a variety of Muslim sects, cultures and backgrounds, offering a beautiful look at the expansive nature of the Muslim religion. The stories keep a focus on eleven and twelve year olds, many of whom are just starting to fast and many who discover the deeper meaning of Eid as they find a path through fasting as well. The stories also deal with deep issues such as divorce, friendships, hijabs, generosity, and family dynamics. At their heart though, each one is a positive force about seeing possibilities anew, finding ways to connect with one another, and pure joy.
The different voices and perspectives here provide a rainbow of experiences for children who are Muslim to relate to and those who are not to more deeply understand this religion. The positivity is uplifting and lovely to read, particularly during a pandemic. I don’t think it could have been better timed, frankly.
A winner of a short-story anthology, take hope and joy from this book. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Amulet.
Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Michele Wood (9780763691561)
Told in brief poems, this nonfiction picture book explores a daring escape to freedom in the face of loss and brutality. Born in 1815, Henry Brown was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia. He worked from the time he was a small child, passed from one generation of his owners to the next. Despite a series of promises by various owners, Henry Brown’s family is sold away from him multiple times, even when he paid money to keep them near. Hearing of the Underground Railroad, he decides to make a dangerous escape to the North, mailing himself in a wooden box.
Weatherford builds box after box in her poetry where each six-lined poem represents the number of sides of Henry Brown’s box. Each of the poems also shows the structure of oppression and the trap that slavery sets for those caught within it. Still, at times her voice soars into hope, still within the limits she has created but unable to be bound.
Wood’s illustrations are incredibly powerful, a great match to the words. She has used a color palette representative of the time period, creating her art in mixed media. The images are deeply textured, moving through a variety of emotions as the book continues. The portraiture is intensely done, each character looking right at the reader as if pleading to be seen.
Two Coretta Scott King winners collaborate to create this powerful book about courage, resilience and freedom. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera (9781419734113)
Gwendolyn Brooks grew up in Chicago, raised in a family that loved words, books and poetry. At age eleven, she sent four poems to a newspaper, and they were printed. She also submitted a poem to a magazine. But then the Great Depression happened and publications were no longer printing poems. Gwendolyn went to school and then to college. She got married and had children, writing poems all the while. She captured the hardworking neighborhood of Bronzeville in Chicago where she lived. Steadily, she started to get her poems published and then submitted a group of poems to a New York publisher. They not only accepted the poems, but asked for more to complete an entire book. She eventually had two books, but still wasn’t able to make enough money to get by. Her electricity had been shut off when she heard that her book had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry!
Slade’s picture book biography of Brooks details a life spent with a love of words but also one that is impacted greatly by poverty. Her life is one filled with early promise as a child, but one that was also put on hold by the economy. Her story is inspiring, showing how a life of hard work and speaking the truth of a community can eventually be noticed.
The art in the book is done in acrylic. The pages are filled with pinks, greens and blues as backgrounds that float like clouds. Against this, realistic depictions of Brooks and her family glow.
A splendid biography of an important African-American poet. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.
Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson (9781547600564)
Even though her father got a new job, Ryan and her family have had to move into a smaller and older house because money is still a problem. Ryan though is able to see the positive in most things, though maybe not her brother some days. She loves to cook, coming up with unique combinations to make good food even better. One thing she struggles with is public speaking, like on Easter where no matter how much she practices her part, she can’t manage to say it into the microphone in front of the congregation. Maybe this is the year? So when Ryan’s class is working on a talent show, Ryan has to figure out how to turn her passions into performance. She is also navigating changing friendships and mean girls who seem intent on pushing her to the side. Ryan may not want the spotlight, but she does bring sunshine wherever she goes.
Watson, winner of a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Award, has created a book for young readers that offers a modern look at being an African-American girl in Portland. The city is tied into the story very successfully, drawing people to beloved places to taste and explore along with Ryan. While the title is full of optimism, the book looks at important issues for elementary-aged children such as race, acceptance, self-esteem, and friendships.
Ryan isn’t a Pollyanna character, rather she is a girl who has resilience and optimism. She is distinctly her own person and Black girls will see themselves as she navigates the many changes in her life. She is smart, creative and positive.
A rival to Ramona, get this one in the hands of young readers. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.