A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (9780823443314)
This book focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech but in a fresh and unique way. It looks at the difficulty of writing such an important speech to be delivered before such a huge crowd. It offers glimpses of King working with a group of advisors and speech writers to come up with the right approach. Then King heads off with only one other person and works all night on his speech. He stands in front of America and gives the speech of his life, the entire thing not coming together and offering him a place to land until he is encouraged to talk about the dream and he leaves his carefully written speech behind and flies.
Written almost as a poem, this picture book offers a look at how the historic speech came to be. It shows the night before the speech in 1963, the early morning hours of writing, and finally the afternoon before of still sculpting the words, the rhythms and the rhymes. And then, powerfully, it shows leaving that carefully written script behind and following the pastors of his family into glory.
Pinkney’s illustrations are so personal and filled with strength. Readers can look into the weary eyes of King as he continues to draft the speech despite not sleeping the night before. They can see the diverse crowd gathered in Washington, D.C. and almost hear the noise of it. They can certainly hear the echoes of King’s voice emerge from the images on the page as his voice soars.
Superb both in writing and illustration, this is one for every library. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson (9781681191089)
When a project about family is assigned at school, Amara realizes that there is a lot she doesn’t know about her own family. Her mothers’ parents are both dead and she had no siblings, but her father’s side lives across the country in Harlem. Amara asks if she could travel to Harlem to see her grandfather whom she only knows from phone calls and cards, since her father often goes there on business. Her parents refuse for some time, then agree to allow her to go. It will be the first time in twelve years that her father sees his own father. Now it is Amara’s job to complete her school assignment by interviewing family members, explore New York City and also bring her family back together, all in a single week!
Newbery Honor winner, Watson brings her considerable writing skill to a fractured family. She captures how forgiveness is difficult even though love is still there and allows the connection between father and son to organically rebuild. All of this is seen through Amara’s eyes as she discovers that her family is different than she realized and that her father has a surprising history she knew nothing about.
Setting is so important in this novel with Harlem and New York City becoming characters in Amara’s story. Many important places in African-American history are explored including the Apollo Theater and the Schomburg Center. Murals and sculptures that feature African-American figures in history are also featured in the story. Readers will want to explore these streets themselves.
A warm and rich exploration of complicated family relationships and love. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Thurgood by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781524765347)
From the time he was a small boy, Thurgood Marshall was destined to be a lawyer. He even convinced his parents to have his name legally changed from Thoroughgood to Thurgood at age six. Thurgood faced racism growing up in Baltimore in the 1920’s. He had to attend the overcrowded Colored High School which had no library, gym or cafeteria. His father worked at jobs where he served wealthy white customers, including at a country club that did not allow black people to be members. His father also taught him to debate and argue ideas. When he attended Lincoln University, Thurgood was loud, funny and a great arguer. He went to law school at Howard University where he learned to fight for civil rights in court. His first major legal fight was to force his top pick law school to accept black students. Again and again, Thurgood fought to create laws that focused on equality for all.
A picture book biography that tells the story of the youth and upbringing and early legal cases of the first African American on the Supreme Court, this book really celebrates how he became a weapon for civil rights. Winter makes sure to keep the inherent racism in the society at the forefront, pointing out moments in Thurgood’s life when he was targeted and almost killed. The resilience and determination on display throughout his life is inspiring.
Collier’s art is done in a mix of watercolor and collage. Using patterns and textures, Collier builds entire worlds from paper, from a ruined movie theater to haunting segregated schools. The illustrations are powerful and add much to this story of racism and fighting back.
Strong and compelling, this biography belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade Books.
The Spacesuit: How a Seamstress Helped Put Man on the Moon by Alison Donald, illustrated by Ariel Landy (9781848864245)
A fascinating glimpse at a woman behind the success of the first moon landing. Eleanor Foraker loved to sew even as a young girl. As an adult, she worked for Playtex, sewing clothing for children and women. When a contest opened to design a spacesuit to go to the moon, Ellie entered it at the last minute. Ellie worked tirelessly with a team of seamstresses and engineers, trying to make a spacesuit that was softer and more comfortable than previous designs. The design was made of 21 layers of fabrics, and they used huge sewing machines to get that much fabric under the needle. The precision sewing meant that they had to be within 1/64 of an inch to be successful. The suit was sent off to Texas with a major problem with a broken zipper that they got a chance to fix. In the end, Ellie’s design won the day and made it to the moon.
This nonfiction picture book tells the very interesting story of how the spacesuits for the moon landing were invented and designed. The interplay of engineers and seamstresses where everyone’s ideas were valid is an important piece. The focus on comfort as well as functionality made their suit the winner as well as a willingness to work very hard to get it finished in time.
The art in the book pays homage to sewing by incorporating pins, images that look sewn on, and even a timeline made of thread. The illustrations are bright with throwbacks to the 1960’s too. The combination is bright and hopeful.
Based on the true story, this picture book is “sew” good. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Our Flag Was Still There by Jessie Hartland (9781534402331)
Explore the history of the Star-Spangled Banner in this nonfiction picture book that celebrates the women who created the flag. The story begins in 1813, when the nation was once again at war with the British. Major George Armistead wanted to send a message to the British that declared that this land belonged to America. Nearby was a shop owned by Mary Pickersgill, who had been taught to make flags by her mother. The fact that a woman owned her own shop and had a staff of other women was very unusual in the 1800s. Mary agreed to make the enormous flag. They worked on it day and night, running out of fabric at times and then running out of room. They moved to a nearby brewery to be able to continue their work with enough space. The flag was finished in six week and then the war began. The flag flew throughout the naval battles, inspiring the song that we still sing as our national anthem.
Hartland tells a fast-paced and lively tale here that never gets bogged down in historical details. The book includes final pages with more information on the war and the battles. The emphasis here though is on how inspiring the flag was and continues to be and how one industrious woman managed to create a symbol that carries on to this day. The art is done in a folk-art style that suits the book well. The size of the flag is emphasized at times to humorous effect. It’s so very large and still able to be viewed at the Smithsonian.
A dynamic look at American history. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (9781250127730)
This biographical picture book shares the story of Janet Collins, the first African-American principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera House. Growing up in the 1930s, Collins ran into segregation and racism as she followed her dream to be a dancer. Though she was excluded from some dance schools and also asked to lighten her skin, she found her way to a school that accepted her thanks to her immense work ethic and talent. Collins became a principal dancer in 1951 after being noticed by the ballet master from the Met when he saw her perform.
Meadows has written a picture book biography that reads like a story book. She uses a repetitive structure that echoes that of folklore tales to make the book very readable and approachable for young children. Each new stanza in the book starts with “This is…” and shows a point in Collins’ life. Within each stanza there are also rhyming couplets that add to the spirit of the book. The structure works to make a book that shares aloud well and invites readers fully into this historical tale.
The illustrations by Glenn are digitally rendered. They range from dramatic images of Collins on stage or streetcars at night to more ethereal images of dancers and times with her family. The illustrations place the story firmly in mid-century America.
A well-written nonfiction picture book that tells the story of one remarkable artist. Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt.
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.
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.