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.
Picturing America: Thomas Cole and the Birth of American Art by Hudson Talbott (9780399548673)
In this picture book biography, the life of artist Thomas Cole is explored. It begins with his early years in England and his love of drawing. He and his sister explored the area they lived in, looking for new things to draw. But when the Industrial Revolution came, it brought hard times for his family. So Thomas moved to America where his family settled down in Steubenville, Ohio and opened a workshop making decorative items. Thomas handpainted many of them. When he saw a book of fine art for the first time, his dream was born. He went on the road, selling his portraits. He eventually got a patron who sent him on a journey up the Hudson River where Thomas painted the wilderness. Soon his paintings were the toast of New York City. Thomas went on to travel to Europe and was inspired to paint a series of paintings about the fall of an empire. Thomas continued to capture the spirit of America and founded his own school Hudson River school of painting along the way.
Talbott tells the complicated story of Cole’s life with a refreshing ease. He has a real clarity in the story he is telling, keeping the tale focused on the results of Cole’s early struggles and then when he obtains success on the new inspirations Cole found on his travels. The book reads well and Cole’s story demonstrates tenacity and resilience as he followed a winding way toward being well known. It is also the story of a young America, what it said to a young immigrant and how its wilderness was worth preserving.
The illustrations combine a friendly lightness even during Cole’s struggles with Cole’s own paintings. It is a treat to see his actual paintings as part of the book. They are hinted at in other sections, but when it truly is his own they are dazzling. They demonstrate firmly why his art caught on and he became a famous painter.
A particularly timely book about an immigrant artist who loved America and caught her essence in paint. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (9780823439607)
After Langston’s mother died, he and his father moved from rural Alabama to Chicago. Langston misses his mother and grandmother as well as their way of life in Alabama. In Chicago, it’s hard for him to make friends and lonely in the apartment when his father is gone. Even the food that his father provides is nothing like the skilled cooking of the women who raised him. But there is one part of Chicago that makes up for all of the changes. The public library branch in his neighborhood is not whites-only like the one in Alabama. Hiding from bullies after school, Langston soon discovers the beauty of poetry, particularly that written by a man with the same name, Langston Hughes.
Cline-Ransome is best known for her picture books and this is her first novel. The skilled writing here would never lead anyone to believe that this is a debut novel though. The prose has the flow and rhythm of poetry as it plays out on the page. The connection to Alabama is also strong in the prose, the way that Langston speaks and the way he sees the world. Somehow Cline-Ransome makes all of that clear in her writing alone.
Langston is a fascinating character living in a very interesting time in American history, the Great Migration when African Americans left the south and headed north to cities like Chicago. Langston’s love of reading and books is not only a way for him to find a home in the local library branch but also eventually a way for him to connect with peers over a love of the written word.
Skilled story telling and a strong protagonist make this book a very special piece of historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (9781682630136)
This nonfiction uses free verse and evocative images to convey the history of the Apollo missions to the moon. The book begins with John F. Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon in ten years. Over the next 2979 days, starting in 1961, over 400,000 people worked to make his vision become reality. The book shares the tragedy of Apollo 1, where three men died on the launchpad due to a fire. It shows the triumphs and set backs of the space program as they tested unmanned rockets. Then Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 return to manned flights with their silence, splendor and drama. Until finally, Apollo 11 reaches the moon and man takes their first steps on its surface.
Slade’s free verse is spare and lovely, capturing the essence of each of the dramatic moments in the quest to reach the moon. With the death of the first lunar astronauts, she allows the doubts about the program’s future to hang in the air, so that readers will understand how brave the choice was to continue forward. Throughout, her writing allows readers to feel and experience those moments, to count the minutes on the dark side of the moon, to feel the tension of piloting the lunar module to the surface, to all of the risks, the moments that could have gone differently.
Gonzalez’s illustrations add to that drama, depicting the astronauts themselves, the glory of space and the splendor of rockets and flight. He uses space on the page beautifully, showing scale and size. His glimpses of earth in space are realistic enough that one almost sees them spin in the blackness.
A glorious look at the Apollo missions. This belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Peachtree Publishers.
Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao (9781580896887)
This nonfiction picture book tells the true story of a librarian who stayed in touch with the children she served even after they were moved forcibly away. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were sent to prison camps. As a librarian in San Diego, Clara Breed served many children of Japanese descent. Before the children left, she gave them books and postcards to correspond with her. While they were gone, she continued to send them small things, even visiting once and delivering boxes of books. The children wrote to her during the three years they were gone as she offered them a way to stay connected to the outside world.
This book shows the Japanese internment in a way that children will understand. The letters shared in the book are excerpts from actual children’s letters written to Miss Breed during this time. They reflect the different ages of the children, their focus on everyday moments and their strong connection to books and their librarian. It is a book that shows how importance and life changing kindness is.
The illustrations are done in pencil on paper and have a softness and glow to them. They do not shrink from showing the desolation of the internment camps and the sorrow and fear of those being placed in them.
A very timely nonfiction book that will show young readers a horrific point in American history and how just one person can make a difference. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Charlesbridge and Edelweiss.
The Secret Project by Jonah Winter (9781481469135, Amazon)
What an incredible risk to take, creating a picture book about the creation of the atomic bomb. A mother-son team not only take that risk but create a book that is heart pounding, historical and riveting. In a shut-down school in the desert of New Mexico, a very secret project begins. The world’s greatest scientists gather to work on the “Gadget.” They work day and night working to cut an atom in half. After two years of work, the device is ready to be tested. The book ends with a countdown to the test and the resulting mushroom cloud.
Told in the simplest of language, this picture book looks at the process of building the atomic bomb, the secrecy of the project and the skill and time that it took. There is a constant growing foreboding as the project continues, as the science progresses. This book is not about the importance of the weapon and does not glorify it in any way. Instead it brings the science down to nuts and bolts, looks at the damage that it creates, and ends in a way that makes sure to leave readers with their heart in their throats.
The illustrations have a strong sense of formality and control to them. Each is framed in a square box and the rest of the page is white. They are almost tiles that decorate the wall for the reader. That all changes as the test begins and suddenly the strict rules are broken wide open, adding to the drama of the end.
Stunning, powerful and brave, this picture book belongs in all library collections. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Martin’s Dream Day by Kitty Kelley, photographs by Stanley Tretick (9781481467667)
This nonfiction picture book uses photographs by legendary White House photographer Tretick to show the story of Martin Luther King, Jr’s historic speech for civil rights. There is an appropriate reverential tone about the day as a whole, the size of the crowds and the speech itself. The book also shows the struggles that led up to the protest, the barriers that stood in the way of racial equality, and the people who stood up for change. While the focus is Martin Luther King Jr., there is also a strong acknowledgement for all of those who fought for civil rights in the United States.
Kelley’s text is straight forward and captures the importance of the day with a laser-like focus. She does use terms and words one rarely sees in picture books and ones that children may need explained to them. Still, this is a picture book probably best shared with an adult who can offer even more of a historical and modern context for the event and the day.
The photographs are simply incredible. It is amazing that one photographer was able to capture so many of them with the density of the crowds and the heat. They tell the story though images, speaking across time. The clothing styles may be vintage but the struggle mirrors that of today, something made all the more evident by the quality of the photographs that capture that same passion and engagement.
A strong piece of nonfiction for children who are living in today’s political environment with other marches surrounding them. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb
Billie Holiday had survived a rough childhood that saw her jailed at age 14 and become a successful jazz singer. Despite her success though, she was still forbidden to do things that her white band members were allowed. She had to hide in rooms, take freight elevators and pretend to be someone different in order to stay in hotels and not sleep on the tour bus. This was all dangerous and eventually she quit. She found a new place to sing in Cafe Society, the first jazz club that welcomed African-American audience members. It was there that she was given the song, Strange Fruit, a song that would become her best-known work. A song that was so powerful that it was met with silence the first time she sang it. A song that would come to speak to a new generation as they stand together today.
Golio has taken a song that is about lynching and turned it into a picture book. It’s a daring subject for a book for young readers, yet he makes it entirely understandable. He uses notes at the end of the book to continue Holiday’s story and also speak about lynching and its history in the United States. The bulk of the picture book is about Holiday’s struggles in the 1930s with pervasive racism and the way that this song spoke to her personal experience and that of all African-Americans.
The illustrations are deep and powerful. They show the pain of racism, the power of song, the energy of a performance and the drama of silence and darkness. Done in acrylic paint and tissue collage, they have a wild freedom of line that works well with the intense subject matter.
An important picture book about a song that has transcended generations and speaks to the struggles of today and yesterday. Appropriate for ages 7-11.
Reviewed from e-galley received from NetGalley and Lerner Publishing Group.
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
The late Walter Dean Myers shows readers the upbringing of American hero, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born a slave in Maryland. He was first taught about reading by the mistress of the house, but she soon stopped teaching him. Frederick grew up helping to care for the family who owned him and learned from the children of the family how to speak clearly. He also learned the differences between his life as a slave and their plans for happy futures. So Douglass taught himself to read. He was hired out to work in the shipyards where he met sailors who were free black men. He fell in love with a free woman and made his way North to freedom, posing as a sailor. Once free in the North, he started to speak out against slavery, becoming the legendary orator he is famous for being.
Myers draws a complete picture of Douglass here. He shows readers the differences between slavery and freedom with a clarity that is vastly helpful. He doesn’t linger on the violence of slavery but it is also not lessened or ignored. He strikes just the right balance for a young audience. As the book continues, one sees Douglass grow up, learn many things and then not only head to freedom himself but argue that slavery should be abolished. There is real courage on these pages, risks taken for a real life, and an understanding that Douglass himself was an incredible individual.
The illustrations by award-willing Cooper are exceptional. Done with erasers and oils on board, they have a beautiful texture to them, almost hazy with the historical significance of what they are depicting. There are images of love, others of violence, others of freedom newly found. As Douglass grows up on the pages he becomes more and more the icon visually as well.
Strong and important, this picture book biography is inspiring. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.