Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (9780062996480)

Amal is an artist and a poet. He’s also a Black teen. So when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and makes a poor decision, his life is turned upside down. With a white boy left in a coma from the fight, Amal is wrongly incarcerated, accused of beating the other teen almost to death. Sent to prison, Amal must figure out how to survive incarceration without his anger at his situation changing him and his future forever. Amal must find a way to stay in touch with his inner artist, to write the words that come to him, to insist upon being seen as more than a convict. He must face the racism of the system, of his community, and of the people around him in prison. It’s a system set against him and it takes real courage and humanity to stay alive and whole as it grinds you down.

Told in verse, this is a powerful book that insists that readers see how the system actually works, its inherent racism, and the way that Black youths, particularly boys, are seen by white communities and white teachers. It is unflinching in showing the grueling nature of prison, the way that teens are treated in detention, the beatings and the inevitable protection in finding a group to belong to. Yet through it all there is hope, solely because of who Amal is and the fact that he is innocent but needs help proving it.

The book reads with such honesty about what life is like for an innocent person incarcerated that it is clear that Salaam offered so much of his own experience to this verse novel. As one of the Exonerated Five, he lived through what Amal does in the story, what so many Black men and boys in our communities do.

This powerful verse novel demands that we see the reality of what we are doing to generations of Black men and boys. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

Box Henry Brown Makes Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

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.

Review: Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen

Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen

Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by James H. Ransome (9780689871672)

John and Millicent were slaves on a plantation in the south. The siblings’ parents were sold away from them, never to be seen again. But before they left, they made sure that their children knew about freedom, hoping that it would come in time for them. The two worked hard labor on the plantation from dawn to night. One day, a great black bird flew over the field only to be shot down and left for dead. The two children head out after dark to see if the bird survived and rescue it. But the next morning, John is hired away to another farm, likely to be gone for many months. Millicent continued to care for the bird, keeping it alive and quiet until John returned. Reunited, the two hear of plans to sell John away and decide to act and choose freedom.

The cruelties and horrors of slavery are front and center in this picture book. The dismantling and breaking of families, the threats and violence, the backbreaking work day after day. The addition of the bird adds a symbol of hope to the book, clearly offering it as a representation of freedom that must be looked after and tended. The text is dense for a picture book, but important as it explains slavery, freedom and the importance of seeing a better future.

Ransome’s illustrations are paintings that play with perspective, looking at the world from the bird’s perspective, seeing its shadow long before it appears, and glimpsing the two children entering the dark field to rescue the bird. One illustration in particular is powerful and dramatic with Meredith and the bird stretching arms and wings together.

A folktale look at freedom and the evils of slavery. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

Review: Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall by Derk Hughes

Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall by Derk Hughes

Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall by Derk Hughes, illustrated by Nathan Christopher (9781524793029)

This modern twist on Humpty Dumpty is a dark and yet hopeful version. Humpty Dumpty is just one of many fairy tale creatures who works for hours for the King under fluorescent lights. They all work and live in the dark shadow of the wall, in a world where they have been forbidden to dream. But Humpty Dumpty has a dream, a dream of seeing over the wall. He had many ideas and decided to build himself a very tall ladder. He finished the ladder, brought it to the wall, and climbed up, up, up to the very top. But the next morning, all that was left were shattered pieces of egg shell and a broken ladder. The wall and the King had won, or had they?

The rhyming text of this book is so cleverly done. It plays with the convention of rhymes in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, yet it never has a jaunty tune here, playing out more like a funeral dirge. The modern touches of fluorescent lights and TV blend into the fairy tale world that Hughes has created. This is a story that mixes our national issues with political walls along with a capitalistic monarchy to great result, a mix of sorrow and hope that is so powerful.

Christopher’s illustrations are simply incredible. Done in pen and ink with no color, they are filled with fine lines and details. It is those details that create an entire dark world for Humpty Dumpty and the others. Walls are built with skulls, thorns fill the borders, roots tangle the floors. The pages are populated by all sorts of fairy tale creatures, some with specific names like Chicken Little and the Mad Hatter and others who are more general like gnomes, fairies, and giants. These are pages to lose yourself in, looking at the details, seeing new things each time.

Incredible, political and edgy, this picture book is for slightly older children who will enjoy the details and the tone. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Penguin Workshop.

Review: Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by John Holyfield (9781600609695)

Born into slavery in 1810, Bill Lewis grew up on a plantation in Tennessee. There, he was taught to be a blacksmith and soon earned so much money that his owner, Colonel Lewis, allowed him to keep some money for himself. Bill worked for years saving his coins, determined to purchase freedom for himself and his family. Eventually he asked Colonel Lewis if he could rent himself out. The Colonel agreed and charged Bill $350 a year for his limited freedom. Bill purchased a blacksmith shop in Chattanooga and became the first African-American blacksmith in the city. He worked long hours and eventually paid for his wife’s freedom, ensuring that all future children would be born free. He then purchased his own freedom and that of his one son born into slavery. But Bill Lewis was not done yet and keep on working hard until he freed every member of his family, including his siblings and mother.

The determination and tenacity of Bill Lewis is indescribable. In a society designed to hold him down, he managed to find a way forward to freedom. Hubbard makes sure that readers understand how unusual this arrangement was and how gifted Lewis was as a blacksmith. The text keeps the story of Lewis’ life focused and well paced. It is a very readable biography.

The illustrations are rich and luminous. The sharing of emotions and holding emotions back play visibly on the page, demonstrating how much had to be hidden and not disclosed in order to purchase freedom. It also shows in a very clear way how limited that freedom was.

A great addition to nonfiction picture book shelves. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Lee & Low Books.

Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older (9781338268812)

Magdalys Roca lives at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York during the year 1863. It is a different world than the one we know, with dinosaurs still roaming the earth. While on a field trip to see a theater performance, riots break out in New York City. Magdalys and her fellow orphans are caught in the situation. As she helps her fellow orphans survive, Magdalys discovers that she has a strange ability to communicate with the dinosaurs around her. Discovering that the orphanage has been destroyed in the riots, Magdalys and several other orphans are taken in by New York freedom fighters in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where people of color have created a place of safety. Magdalys and her friends are soon involved in saving the other children from being taken into slavery.

Based loosely on real history, this novel has just enough historical reality to keep it grounded. Add in the dinosaurs and you have a wonderful novel of alternative history that will keep children enthralled. The pace is fast and becomes almost wild during fight and battle scenes. The children face real horrors of slavery, including a lynching, mobs of people intent of capturing or killing them, and a network of men working to send free people into bondage. The setting of a historical New York City is deftly woven into the story line as well.

It’s not often that you have children’s fantasy books that offer alternative takes on history. It is even more rare that those books have children of color as the main characters in the novel. Magdalys is a great heroine, full of bravery and a sense of purpose as she joins those trying to change the world. She is a natural leader though she views herself as a loner, something that others won’t allow her to be.

A rip-roaring read that will have children longing for a dactyl to ride. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

3 New Noisy Picture Books

Blacksmith_s Song by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk

Blacksmith’s Song by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Anna Rich (9781561455805)

Told in first person, this picture book shows how communication worked for the Underground Railroad. The boy’s father is a slave on a plantation, working as the blacksmith. He uses the rhythm of the forge to send messages that carry to those waiting to escape. The boy wonders when it will be their turn to escape to freedom. But day by day, his father is growing weaker and more ill. Soon he may not be able to even send the messages from his hammer. When it is finally their turn to leave, it is the boy who takes up the hammer, sending his first message and his father’s last as they head to freedom.

Rich with language, this picture book takes the words of the forge and let them shine. Throughout smoke, sparks and the hammer’s rhythm form a steady beat that the book uses very successfully. The added tension of the father’s illness brings even more pressure for the family to escape in time. While slavery is painted with a gentler brush here for younger audiences, the feeling of oppression is strong and the need to escape is clear. The illustrations are deep and dark, lit by the light of the forge and showing that dark unknowns are safer than slavery. A look at the Underground Railroad that is appropriate for young listeners aged 5-7. (Reviewed from ARC provided by Peachtree Publishers.)

The Great Dictionary Caper by Judy Sierra

The Great Dictionary Caper by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Eric Comstock (9781481480048)

When the words in Noah Webster’s dictionary get bored just sitting around, they escape and create plenty of word fun in this picture book. They form a word parade made of works like “clang” and “boom” and “crash.” There are short words and long words, action verbs pick up the pace. Homophones, contractions, antonyms and palindromes fill the pages too. Rhyming words and words with no rhymes as well as interjections and conjunctions make merry. There is plenty to enjoy here, including witty humor and a rip-roaring pace. Children won’t even realize they are learning concepts as each of the letters has a personality that suits the word they are in. Jazzy and delightful, this picture book is a celebration of our language. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.)

Rumble Grumble...Hush by Kate Banks

Rumble Grumble…Hush by Kate Banks, illustrated by Simone Shin (9781101940495)

The day starts with a few small noises until the little boy starts to play loudly with his imaginary friends. There is roaring, banging, rumbling and dumping. Then it’s time for a bit of quiet with breakfast and thinking until once again the rumbling and grumbling starts. More quiet comes, with a bag of quiet games, puzzles and art projects, books to read and a nap. Then noise is welcome again with balls and toys and blocks and trains. Dinner comes and goes and bedtime approaches with its own quiet. The way that noise and quiet are presented here is lovely, showing they both have places and special ways of playing that allow them to happen. Loud and quiet times are filled with play and imagination here and parental expectations are shown with lots of love and support. The illustrations are playful with friendly huge imaginary friends that fill the page, dark wood floors to sit on and play, bright walls to hang art on, and plenty of room for imaginations to fill. A warm and loving look at play and noise, this picture book is a gem. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade Books and Edelweiss.)

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers (9781452162812)

This book on the Statue of Liberty could not be more timely for our world today. The book first looks at the French origins of the statue made to celebrate the centennial of the United States. From small renderings to large pieces of the full-sized statue, Bartholdi, the artist shipped the statue to New York City in 214 crates. Statue assembly in New York took 17 months. The copper statue was originally copper brown, but aged to the green lady we know today. The book then focuses on the statue’s right foot, a foot that is moving rather than standing still. This symbol of our nation welcoming refugees and immigrants from around the world is stepping forward, just as we must to welcome new people to our shores.

This book is a lovely cross between a picture book and a nonfiction read. Shaped as a book that is shorter and thicker than most picture books, it offers illustrations on all of the pages. The text length is welcoming for younger readers and will also work as a read aloud.

The book moves from being a factual read about the statue itself and how it was built and came to America. It transforms into a call for our nation to live up to that symbol, to step forward as well. It becomes something more than the facts, more than the details. It brings the statue and our values to life.

Rumbles of awards surround this title. It deserves all of them. Unique and fabulous. Appropriate for ages 5-9. (Review copy provided by Chronicle Books.)

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden (9781599903194, Amazon)

This novel looks at a piece of history that many people don’t know about. Mariah and her brother Zeke have been freed from slavery in Georgia as part of Sherman’s march. As she starts to realize that she may not have to return to the brutality she has lived in all of her life, Mariah begins to see new options for both her future and that of her brother. She is given a ride in a wagon by a young man Caleb who was raised in freedom. The two slowly begin to form a relationship with one another, born on their shared hope for the future and it being spent together. Still, there are soldiers and generals on the march who do not appreciate that the freed people are taking supplies from the military scavenging. Dangers continue to surround all of them as they make their steady way towards freedom.

Bolden writes in a poetic prose in this novel. She shares both the hope of freedom and the evils of slavery in the book. The horrors of slavery are offered with a frankness that allows them to fully be realized, each person having experienced their own personal hell. She makes sure to keep the tension high with the Rebels raiding the camps, pressures from within the northern forces, and the dangers of the march itself.

The relationship of Mariah and Caleb matches the pace of the march, steady and filled with bumps and revelations as well. It is a lovely lengthy courtship, given the space to blossom in a natural way that feels like the reader is falling in love along with them. The long journey gives them that time, even as the foreshadowing and dangers allow the reader to know they are not safe at all.

An important book on a little-known episode during the Civil War, this book is intensely personal and a dangerous mix of romance and horror. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.