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: 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.

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.)

3 New Biographies of Great Women

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James R. Ransome (9780823420476)

Told in reverse chronological order, this picture book biography of Harriet Tubman is stunning. The verse walks readers through her life, from her work with runaway slaves to her speeches as a suffragist. The book touches on other parts of her life that readers may not be aware of such as her work as a Union spy and a nurse. The book moves all the way back to Harriet saving her family from slavery and then her own time enslaved on a plantation when her father taught her about the woods and the stars, creating an opportunity for Harriet to become the amazing woman she was. The poetry of this book is beautiful and spare, it moves from one important moment in Harriet’s life to another, spooling out her life’s story. The illustrations by Ransome are beautiful, playing with light and dark. The images stop readers just to gaze when the page is turned as they capture one moment after another. An important and lovely book about Harriet Tubman that belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (ARC provided by Holiday House.)

Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu (9781454920007)

This picture book offers a friendly and approachable look at the life of Grace Hopper, one of the most important and influential computer geniuses of history. Even as a child Grace spent her time figuring out how things worked and designing devices. She attended Vassar College where she studied math and physics and also found adventures like going up in a plane. She attended graduate school in Yale, one of two women in her class. When World War II came, Grace wanted to help and tried to join the Navy. At first they would not accept her, but after a year she convinced them. She wrote programs for the first computers, coining the term “computer bug” when a moth flew in and stopped the computer from working. She created the way that computers can be programmed using language rather than 1s and zeroes.

Wallmark also shares a timeline of Hopper’s life at the end of the book that shows even more of her accomplishments over her long career. She also makes sure to share Hopper’s personal verve for life and her approach to creativity, moving the book away from what could have been too distant and factual into one that children can relate to easily. Wu’s illustrations capture that feeling as well, showing Hopper hard at work and yet enjoying daredevil time and teamwork. A great picture book biography that will add a lot to STEM collections. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Nina Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Briere-Haquet

Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Briere-Haquet, illustrated by Bruno Liance (9781580898270)

This picture book is a completely engrossing look at the life of Nina Simone. Done in a way that welcomes even small children to hear her story, the book opens with a greeting and a lullaby. Using piano keys as an allegory for race, the book looks at the keys through the eyes of a young Nina, who notices that white keys are whole notes while black keys are half notes. She sees something similar in society as well. Nina used music as a way to unite and to protest. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., her music spoke to people of all color and united them. While the story follows a linear path in time, the information shared focuses on important events in Nina’s life rather than feeling like a chronological list of accomplishments or dates. Instead readers get to see what influenced her and how she grew into her voice as an activist. The illustrations are particularly compelling. Done in black and white, the image of people who arranged as piano keys and the one of dandelion seeds floating downward are particularly compelling. Smart and beautifully designed. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis (9780545156660)

When Charlie’s father is killed in a freak accident, he and his mother are left destitute and unable to repay his father’s debt to their landlord. The two of them try to flee, but they are caught by Cap’n Buck, the overseer on the local plantation and a man who terrorizes people just for fun. To pay off part of his father’s debt, Charlie joins Cap’n Buck has he journeys north from South Carolina to Detroit to catch some thieves. At twelve-years-old, Charlie is as large as a grown man and no stranger to hard work. But the trip ends in a situation that Charlie was not expecting, with escaped slaves who have built a life in the north. Charlie doesn’t have a lot of choices in life, but perhaps one last decision will make all the difference for him and others.

The Newbery Award winning Curtis writes with such skill that it is impossible not to fall deeply into his stories and become immersed in the world he builds. Here, the strong South Carolina dialect that Charlie and Cap’n Buck speak in helps to strengthen that world building, creating a strong tie to the region and historical setting with language alone. The historical setting is clearly drawn, including the city of Detroit as well as the communities in Canada. These elements are critical because of the slave laws between the United States and Canada that are such an important part of the story.

I fell hard for Little Charlie, a boy who has no education, lives in dire poverty, and whose family has steadily lost everything. There is something about him, about the way he sees the world. He has an optimism that carries him forward each day, not one that is blind or overly ambitious, but a cautious optimism that things can be different. It’s that nature that allows what he does in the book to make sense and not be out of character. Curtis has drawn a character who is an unlikely hero unless you know him well.

Beautifully written and structured, this middle-grade novel is an important look at personal choices and the power of doing what is right. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Scholastic and Edelweiss.

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.

Frederick Douglass by Walter Dean Myers

frederick-douglass-by-walter-dean-myers

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.

Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan

freedom-over-me-by-ashley-bryan

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan (InfoSoup)

Based on actual slave auction and plantation estate information, this is a picture book that truly captures the world of enslaved people in the United States. The household has lost its master, who ran the plantation with its eleven slaves. His wife is about to return to England and the slaves will be sold with the rest of the property. The book opens with a poem of the wife and then into the voices of the eleven slaves, each one filled with a refusal to be seen only as a price tag or property, each one celebrating their skills and their lives.

Bryan’s poetry sings on the page, defiant and strong. He writes of the losses of slavery, of families broken up and never seeing one another again, of brutality on the plantation and the auction block, of being taken from Africa and freedom, and of the hardships of life as a slave. Bryan also notes though for each person that there are things that make them far more than any category could put them in, more valuable than their skills, more vital than their age and sex. This is a powerful testament against the inhumanity of slavery done by putting a face to eleven slaves that are impossible to turn away from.

Bryan’s art focuses on the faces of the slaves. He does one portrait almost as a flyer for the auction with their face and price, name and age. Then the page turns and you see their dreams on the page, captured in the same thick paint but no longer framed with words of slavery and now bright with colors and action.

Powerful and unique, this picture book takes on slavery in the most passionate and personalized way possible. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher by Heather Henson

lift-your-light-a-little-higher-by-heather-henson

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier (InfoSoup)

Stephen Bishop was a slave who explored and mapped Mammoth Cave. The book is set in 1840 where you can follow the light of Bishop’s lantern deep into the massive cave as he gives people and the reader a tour. For the reader though, the tour is about slavery, about civil rights and about the ability for a man to discover value through exploring darkness. Bishop was the first to see many of Mammoth’s sights, including the blind fish. He learned to read as people signed their names on the cave’s ceiling, though learning to read and write was forbidden for slaves. This man’s story is a tale of resilience, self worth and discovery.

Henson tells the story almost in verse, capturing the highlights of the man’s discoveries but also weaving the dark side of slavery with the darkness of the cave. Henson gives Bishop a strong voice, one that stands out on the page and demands to be heard. Told in the voice of The Guide, Bishop explains slavery and its structure to the reader just as he explains his role and his attitudes towards life and the cave that made his famous. The author’s note contains information on Bishop and how he was sold along with the cave to several owners.

Collier’s illustrations are exceptional. He has several that are simply amazing in their power. One that caused me to linger for some time was the page with the oxen with faces on their sides, faces of slavery in various colors that are wrinkled and damaged. It’s a powerful reminder of the place of slaves as property. There are other pages that show hope in the slanting light of sun as Bishop exits the dark of the cave is one. Exceptional.

A strong picture book biography of a man many won’t have heard of before, this book speaks to the tragedy of slavery and the resilience and power of one man. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.