Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (9781524740955)

As a Chinese-American living in Atlanta in 1890, Jo veers between being invisible to being openly shunned. She even lives invisibly in an underground secret room with Old Gin, the man who has raised her. Fired from her millinery job due to her race, Jo returns to her previous job as a maid for the entitled daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. From her underground chamber, Jo discovers that the newspaper publisher who lives in the house above is having difficulty. A competing paper has a new advice column that is getting a lot of attention. So Jo sets out to anonymously fill that role as Miss Sweetie. As her column gains attention and controversy due to her distinct take on race and women’s rights, Jo finds herself caught up in a mystery that may force her to reveal all of her secrets.

Lee writes about an interesting moment in American history. After Chinese people were brought over to replace African-Americans as slaves on plantations, they also fled the hard work and disappeared into urban areas. These Chinese-Americans then had to figure out how to get by in a world that saw only black and white, not other races. Jo finds herself at the heart of these struggles as she navigates the world of the South in the late 1800’s. Laws were changing, and certainly not for the better around her. It’s a captivating look at an almost invisible group of people who should not be forgotten in the history of our nation.

Jo is a marvelous protagonist. Lee does an admirable job of making Jo’s more progressive views make sense and not be too modern. Bound by the society around her, Jo is regularly reminded of her status and that helps the reader also understand the restrictions that Jo finds herself living in. Still, Jo fights for what she needs and figures out ways to move ahead and help those she loves. She is undaunted, brave and fierce.

A superb historical novel that looks at race, gender and America. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Review: Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen

Away with Words The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen

Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (9781682630051)

As a child, Isabella Bird was not well. She spent much of her time with aches and pains stuck indoors. Then her doctor had an idea that fresh air might do her good. She traveled on horseback with her father and realized that she loved to explore. However, Victorian England was not conducive to a woman traveling on her own, and Isabella once more fell ill. Once again, she was prescribed travel and set off on a journey to Canada and the United States. When she returned, triumphant and with many stories, she was encouraged to write a book. This set her off on a lifetime of travels and adventures around the world and writing books that captivated nineteenth-century readers.

Mortensen demonstrates how very stifling life in the 1800s were for women and girls. Happily, Bird was able to discover her own passion for travel and adventure. The book tells stories of her travels and the harrowing situations she found herself in, like climbing volcanoes, surviving severe cold, and dangling from a cliff by her skirt. Scattered throughout the book are excerpts from Bird’s own writing that show how stirring and evocative her prose was.

The illustrations in the book are done with simple lines that really capture the action and at times the boredom of Bird’s life. Bird’s journal, with her on all of her travels, features heavily in the illustrations as it drops over cliffs, loses pages to the wind, or has Bird writing in amazing situations.

A look at a woman who did not allow social conventions to slow her down, this is an inspirational story of following one’s bliss. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Peachtree.

Review: Lights! Camera! Alice! by Mara Rockliff

Lights! Camera! Alice! The Thrilling Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff

Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo (9781452141343)

Alice Guy-Blache was the first woman film-maker in the world. When motion pictures were first invented, they were used to show dull things like people boarding a train. Alice saw an opportunity to use them to tell stories, like the stories she had loved since she was a child. Alice figured out how to run film backward to show people flying upwards among other clever tricks. She made colored films by hand and created the first movies with sound. Alice moved to America with her new husband and discovered that no one had ever heard of her there! So she set out to create more films and eventually opened her own studio in New York State. Unfortunately, everything changed when Hollywood became the place for movies and Alice had to return to France without even a movie camera. Still, she had one last story to tell, her own.

This eye-opening picture book biography will introduce readers to an amazing woman whose vision of what movies could be led the way to new developments and implementations. Most importantly, Alice realized that film could be used to tell stories and set out to do just that. Throughout her life and this book, Alice shows a fierce determination, artistic eye, and a desire to share her imagination with others.

The art by Ciraolo is bright and full of action. It shows vintage images of ads as well as the brightness of Alice’s ideas. Some of the images take an entire page while others are small vignettes of big moments in Alice’s life. The variety makes for a dynamic book visually.

An introduction to a woman that we should all know. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

 

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: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (9780062795328)

In this sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, the focus is on Felicity, Monty’s sister. Felicity desperately wants to become a doctor, but in 18th century England, women did not become doctors. Felicity tries again and again to gain entry to a medical education, but is rebuffed. She is forced to give up her job at a bakery because the kind man who owns it proposes marriage to her. Felicity is not interested in romance at all. When she learns that her childhood best friend is set to marry her medical idol, Felicity heads to Germany to attend the wedding. She is funded Sim, by a rather questionable companion, who poses as Felicity’s maid to gain entry into the same household but for unknown reasons. As things develop, there is another whirlwind adventure across continents in a quest that could be legendary.

Lee has a wonderful wit and humor in her writing. She tells this new tale with the same dance of sarcasm, historical detail and charm as her first book. It is a delight to see Felicity at the center of the novel, as she was a character readers will have loved in the first book but longed to know more about. The book takes place a year after the first ended, just enough time for the dust to settle on that adventure. Lee gives readers glimpses of Monty and Percy, but they do not overtake Felicity’s story.

As readers get to know Felicity better, they will realize that she is a person with no interest in romance or sex. Modern terms would describe her as asexual, but that term is not used in the book. Beautifully, that does not mean that she is cold or distant, rather that she is not interested in kissing or cuddling much and certainly has no designs on romantic futures with other characters. And yet, there is love in the book. Brotherly love, deep connections and real female friendships shine here.

A wonderful second book in an award-winning series, there is so much to adore on these pages. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: Spring After Spring by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Spring After Spring by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement by Stephanie Roth Sisson (9781626728196)

This nonfiction picture book begins in much the same way that Rachel’s childhood days started: birdsong, insects, forest exploration and insects. Rachel loved to look at the world from the big view and then to kneel down and look very closely at nature. She loved spring days best, returning home after dark to supper and her big family. As the seasons turned, Rachel watched and documented them all, growing bigger herself. She headed off to college to become a writer, until she discovered the microscopic world which led her to science. She worked as a scientist, diving under the sea and then writing books about it. Soon though, she realized that things were changing and species were disappearing. This led to her most important book, Silent Spring, which cautioned about the impact of chemicals on the ecosystem.

Sisson encapsulates Carson’s life in a very approachable way. The first part of the book focuses on Carson’s childhood love of nature and being outside. The text focuses on what Carson sees and experiences. As the book moves to her adult life, the text is about bravery and taking on the unknown. It then moves to her realization of what is happening in nature and her tenacity in figuring out what is going on. Throughout, this is the picture of a girl and woman who loves nature, thinks deeply and writes beautifully enough to change the opinions of a nation.

The illustrations are simple and lovely. They show all of the sounds of nature when Carson is a young child. Those same rich experiences are shown with the ghostly figures of animals that have disappeared due to chemicals. There is no mistaking the warmth of Carson’s home and family and then the strength that it took for her to stand strong in the face of people’s doubts.

A great picture book biography about an amazing woman, this is a timely read. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.

 

Review: Game Changers by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Game Changers The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome (9781481476843)

The childhood of Venus and Serena is told in this picture book biography. As the youngest of the Williams children, they started playing tennis alongside their older sisters. Then they became the two who continued on. Growing up in Compton made their practices more challenging, including sometimes having to stay down when guns were fired in the neighborhood. The two remained dedicated to their sport, quickly climbing the ranks and becoming ranked players. Trained from a young age to ignore the taunts from the crowd, the two of them became two of the best players of all time, both in doubles and singles. There has been drama when the two sisters had to play one another in tournaments and still they showed a joy in one another’s accomplishments even when they were the loser.

A look at two girls who shared their father’s dreams for them, putting in the hard work, showing resilience and silencing critics. The book focuses on Venus and Serena themselves and also on the way that they have supported one another through wins and losses, staying close and being true sisters. The illustrations are exceptional works of collage that have strong colors and graphic elements that pop on the page. Small touches add interesting details, like the girls’ socks being made from paper with words and lines.

Beautiful, strong and inspiring, this look at two modern legends is a pleasure. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

Review: Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker

Counting on Katherine How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk (9781250137524)

Katherine loved counting and math as a young girl. She was a brilliant student who skipped three grades. However, there was no high school in her town that accepted black students. So her father worked day and night to afford to move them to a town where Katherine could attend high school. She became an elementary school teacher, because there were no jobs for research mathematicians who were women. Katherine did not give up her dream, eventually becoming a mathematician working for NASA. She worked on the Mercury missions and the Apollo missions, doing the math that allowed the Apollo 13 astronauts to return safely.

Filled with the determination and resilience it took for Johnson to become a NASA mathematician, this picture book shows the barriers that were and are in place for scientists and mathematicians who are women and people of color. Make sure to check out the note at the end that provides even more information on this incredible mathematician. The art in the book is incredibly appealing with mathematics adding complexity to the simple style.

A picture book biography that soars to great heights. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Nothing Stopped Sophie by Cheryl Bardoe

Nothing Stopped Sophie The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, illustrated by Barbara McClintock (9780316278201)

Sophie loved math from the time she was a small girl. Her parents had to take away her candles and her warm dresses to keep her in bed at night and not at work at her desk. But nothing stopped her, not even the French Revolution when she  was growing up. There were no opportunities for Sophie to study in a university, so she did her homework by mail using a male name. Her work was extraordinary, but when her identity was discovered no mathematicians would return her letters, though she became very popular at dinner parties due to her reputation. In her thirties, Sophie discovered a mathematical problem that would become her focus for many years. A challenge was set to figure out the mathematics behind vibrations and the patterns they made. Years later, Sophie was the only one to submit a solution which she then worked to perfect for additional years. This time though, she worked under her own name.

Bardoe has written a lovely biography of a fascinating woman who demonstrated that women are just as good at mathematics as men are. Her math has a blend of science and math with its focus on vibrations, making it all the more complex. The book shows again and again the resilience and determination that it took for Sophie to succeed. The writing is accessible and celebratory in tone. McClintock’s illustrations incorporate collage in a subtle but profound way. She also uses numbers and formulas in the art itself, creating scenes from a scaffold of digits and action from vibration patterns.

A great picture book biography about an inspiring woman. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.