Review: The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome

the bell rang by james e. ransome

The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome (9781442421134)

This new book from a Coretta Scott King Award winner is a stunning look at slavery and freedom. Told over the course of a week, the book depicts the monotony and toll of the grueling work that never changes or abates. On each day, the bell rings to wake them and the narrator’s older brother indicates that he is going to leave and run away to freedom. Each touch of his hands says it, he says it aloud and he leaves her a gift. When he does run, the days become even harder, being unable to eat and unable to stop crying because he is missed and he is in danger. When the other boys who ran away with him are brought back and whipped, he is still free. And another week begins.

Ransome is a master storyteller and his skill is evident the verse in this picture book. Told with a spareness that allows readers no ability to look away or take solace in niceties, the book lays bare the human cost of slavery and what it takes to escape to freedom. The book is abundant in family love with all of the family taking time to be kind to one another and love one another through difficult and impossible situations.

The illustrations are just as powerful as the text. They illuminate the lives of this family, focusing on the people who are enslaved. Many of the scenes are filled with love and grace. But they are all shadowed by slavery and lack of freedom.

A harrowing look at slavery and freedom, this picture book reveals the truth of our American history. Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

Review: Let ‘Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

let 'er buck! george fletcher, the people's champion by vaunda micheaux nelson

Let ‘Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James (9781541541801)

George Fletcher moved to Pendleton, Oregon, a place where there weren’t a lot of African-Americans. He made friends with the children from the Umatilla Indian Reservation and learned how to train horses with gentleness. George started riding in competitions at age 16, though he was often shut out of competitions because of the color of his skin or judged unfairly. He got his chance to really show off his skill at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, the biggest rodeo in the Northwest. He made the top three finalists for the Saddle Bronc Championship. He outrode the other two competitors, and when the white person was named champion the crowd booed. One man in the crowd decided it wasn’t alright and sold small pieces of George’s hat to the crowd for $5 each. He turned the money over to George and it ended up being more than the grand prize. George was crowned the “People’s Champion” that day.

Nelson writes with a lovely western twang in this nonfiction picture book. She captures the spirit of the west in the words she uses and in particular in her metaphors. George took to the ways of the Umatilla tribes “like a wet kitten to a warm brick.” Ranching suited George “like made-to-measure boots.” These are just two examples of the vivid way that Nelson uses language to firmly place her book in its setting. She also creates a compelling portrait of Fletcher and faces the inherent racism of the system head on.

The illustrations by James are full of color and motion. Created with oil on board, they are a stunning mix of movement, depth and history. One can almost see the action playing out from the lines he uses. Stunning

A strong picture book about racism, horses, rodeos and heroism. Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.

Review: This Promise of Change by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

this promise of change by jo ann allen boyce and debbie levy

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy (9781681198521)

This nonfiction novel in verse tells the story of Jo Ann Allen, one of the twelve African-American students who were among the first in the nation to integrate a segregated high school in the South. The small town of Clinton, Tennessee became one of the first communities to attempt desegregation after the Supreme Court ruling made segregation illegal. A year before the Little Rock 9, this lesser-known group of brave students at first attended their new school without incident but then outside agitators, the KKK and other white supremacists got involved. As the issue grew, simply attending school became too dangerous for the African-American students. When they were escorted by a local white pastor to school, he ended up beaten and almost killed. Jo Ann became a spokesperson for the group of students and for integrating schools in general. Her story is one of resilience and tolerance.

Levy very successfully uses various forms of poetic verse to tell Jo Ann’s story in this book. In her author’s note, she speaks about why verse was the logical choice as it captured the musicality of Jo Ann’s speech. Her skill is evident on the page, capturing both the quiet parts of Jo Ann’s life and the dramatic moments of desegregation including acts of hatred against the students. Jo Ann’s story is told in a way that allows young readers to understand this moment in United States history in a more complete way. The images at the end of the book and additional details shared there add to this as well.

Perhaps most surprising is the fact that these moments have been lost to history and this group of twelve students is not as well-known as the Little Rock 9. At the same time, that is what makes this book all the more compelling to read as their story is more nuanced since the mayor and governor did not defy the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Beautifully written, this heartbreaking and dramatic story of courage in the face of hatred belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Review: What Is Given from the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack

What Is Given from the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack

What Is Given from the Heart by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by April Harrison (9780375936159)

After his father died, James Otis and his mother got even more poor than before. They lost their farm and had to move into a small house in the Bottoms. Things kept getting worse as his dog disappeared and everything flooded. Christmas was sparse but they made their way through until spring. That’s when their church gave out love boxes to those in need. This year, one family had lost everything in a fire. James Otis was encouraged to give something to the little girl in the family, but what could he give? He had a few possessions, but he didn’t think she would like any of them. Finally, he had an idea, something that would speak to her heart. At church on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, James Otis gave her the book he had made for her, and she was delighted with it. When he returned home with his mother, they discovered that they too had been given a love box to help them through.

McKissack died over a year ago; it is a distinct treat to have another one of her picture books published. Here she focuses on resilience in the face of hardship and adversity as well as the power of giving to others. For the young character of James Otis, thinking of another lifts his spirits and when he creates something for her, you can feel his pride on the page. The text of the book is uplifting and powerful, calling for everyone to step forward and help one another from the heart.

Harrison’s illustrations are done in mixed media with acrylics and collage. They have a deep texture to them in places and in others the patterns are layered and beautifully subtle, almost like complex batik. The light in the images glows with a honeyed color, creating a warmth in the face of poverty and a hope that encases the entire book.

A beautiful final book for McKissack that calls for heartfelt help for those in need. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.

Review: Black Enough edited by Ibi Zoboi

black enough edited by ibi zoboi

Black Enough edited by Ibi Zoboi (9780062698742)

This short story collection for teens contains writing from the best African-American writers for teens. The list of authors is awe inducing. One after another is a thrilling author to read, particularly in short story format. Each of the stories is a winning entry too. Some are lighthearted like the story by Jason Reynolds. Others are more serious, looking deeply at issues in the African-American community. Many of them deal with intersectionality, offering characters who are also LGBTQ or of different faiths. The array of stories speaks to the diversity of the African-American experience, often playing directly against stereotypes to look more closely at being a teen of color in America.

Incredible authors come together to create an anthology that is very impressive. The interplay of the stories as edited by Zoboi makes for a fascinating journey through the various facets and aspects of being an African-American teen. Teens of various levels of wealth and poverty, interests and hobbies appear in the anthology often interacting with one another in the stories. There is such richness in these stories, many of which could be used in classrooms to start discussions but all of them can be simply enjoyed by teen readers.

This is a must-read and must-have for all libraries serving teens. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

Review: Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

genesis begins again by alicia d. williams

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams (9781481465809)

Genesis keeps a list of things that she hates about herself. Some of it is the color of her skin and the way that others tease her about how dark she is, unlike her light-skinned mother with good hair. Some of it is about the way that their family keeps getting kicked out of the houses they live in because they don’t pay the rent. Some of it is the way her father speaks about her when he is drunk. Some of it is based on her grandmother’s hurtful comments about Genesis. So after being kicked out of yet another house, Genesis’ family moves to a more affluent neighborhood outside of Detroit. Genesis discovers that she likes her new school and even finds herself making real friends for the first time. The house is the nicest they have ever lived in too. But other things aren’t any better. Her father keeps on drinking. Genesis is still as dark-skinned as ever, but she has plans to try to lighten her skin, thinking that will make her entire life better. As Genesis discovers her own talents, she must learn that learning to accept herself is a large piece of moving forward in life.

In this debut novel, Williams writes with a strong voice, taking on difficult topics including verbal abuse, racism, skin tone, alcoholism and co-dependency in an unflinching way. Williams reveals the deep pain and lasting scars that cruel words and verbal abuse can have on a young person, particularly when it is about a physical characteristic that is beyond their control. With Genesis’ parents caught in a marriage filled with anger and substance abuse, Williams offers other adult figures and also young peers who model a way forward for Genesis.

Genesis’ growth is organic and well paced. She learns things steadily but has set backs that end up with her damaging herself. She is a complicated character who looks at life through a specific lens due to her upbringing. She is constantly judging others before they can judge her, placing distance where there could be connections, and making poor decisions when offered compliments. Still, she is a good friend, someone willing to look beyond the surface and see what others can’t. But only when she allows herself to do that. Her complexity is what makes this book really shine.

Strong and vibrant, this book takes on the subject of skin tone in the African-American community as well as other heavy topics. Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Atheneum.

Review: Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden (9781681198071)

Set in the 1880s, this novel explores the world if Essie, a young African-American woman who grew up with a neglectful mother and was rescued from poverty and prostitution by a kindly cleaning woman. Determined to keep learning even though she left school at an early age, Essie continued to read everything she could get her hands on. While working at a boarding house, Essie meets Dorcas Vashon, a wealthy African-American woman who sees potential in Essie and offers her a way to transform her life. Taught etiquette and new manners by Dorcas over several grueling months, Essie becomes Victoria and takes on the persona of Dorcas’ niece. As Victoria enters the social elite in Washington, D.C. she must hold to the lie that she is living until she can’t manage it any longer.

Bolden captures a period in American history that is rarely seen in books, much less teen novels. It is the period after Restoration gave African-Americans new rights but before the Jim Crow laws came stripped them away. It is a dazzling time to be a member of society and Bolden gives us details about the books, the manners and the dresses that make up that world. The setting of Washington, D. C. society is beautifully depicted as well.

Essie/Victoria makes for a wonderful set of eyes to view this world through. While she is taken with her new lifestyle and the opportunities it brings, Essie wrestles with the lies she must tell to keep it that way. Her strength of character is particularly evident when she is pressed such as learning etiquette and at the end of the book when she must make a moral decision. It is then that Essie fully steps into her own.

A fascinating look at a neglected piece of American history. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt

So Tall Within Sojourner Truth's Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Daniel Minter (9781626728721)

Isabella grew up in slavery, sold away from her mother when she was nine. She did hard labor for years, sometimes with no shoes in the winter and other times with no sleep at night because of the work expected of her. One year after she had been forced to marry a man and had five children, she was promised her freedom. But freedom didn’t come and so she escaped with her baby. She arrived at the home of two kind people, who stood by her in her escape and paid for the freedom of Isabella and her baby. When her son was sold away by her old master, Isabella went to court to have him returned to her. As time went by, she took the name Sojourner Truth and started to speak publicly against slavery. She fought many battles for equality, standing tall and speaking the truth.

This book aches with pain, loss, and grief. The book is broken into sections, each starting with an evocative phrase about slavery, that shows what is ahead. These poetic phrases add so much to Sojourner Truth’s biography, pulling readers directly into the right place in their hearts to hear her story. Schmidt’s writing doesn’t flinch from the damage of slavery and its evil. He instead makes sure that every reader understands the impact of slavery on those who lived and died under it.

Minter’s art is so powerful. He has created tender moments of connection, impactful images of slavery, and also inspiring moments of standing up for what is right. The images that accompany Schmidt’s poetic phrases are particularly special, each one staring right at the reader and asking them to connect.

A riveting biography of one of the most amazing Americans in our history. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.

Review: Africville by Shauntay Grant

Groundwood Logos Spine

Africville by Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Eva Campbell (9781773060439)

A girl visits the historical site of Africville, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She imagines what the community was once like, how the children would play together. She imagines lunch on the tables, picking blueberries over the hill. She imagines playing games, going rafting, and bonfires by the water. Her great-grandmother had lived in Africville before it was destroyed in the 1960s after surviving for over 150 years. But the black community of Africville never received the same services as the rest of Halifax despite paying taxes. The community was eventually relocated from the site and moved to public housing. Africville is now a park where former residents and their descendants return to remember the community that had once stood there.

Grant gives us a glimpse of what Africville once was. The picture book keeps descriptions short and the focus on children and their lives in the community. There is an author’s note at the end of the book that offers more context for what Africville was and what happened to its residents. The use of a modern child to dream about what might have been in Africville is a great lens through which to look at life there. The peacefulness and sense of community pervade the entire read.

Campbell’s illustrations are filled with deep colors. The bonfire pages glow with reds of fire and sunset. There is lush green everywhere and the houses pop with bright paint colors. She creates the warmth of a real community on the pages, illustrations that seem to have sunlight shining from them.

A gorgeous tribute to a piece of Canadian history. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.