Picture Book Review: Lift Your Light a Little Higher by Heather Henson

lift-your-lightLift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop Slave-Explorer written by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier

From Goodreads: Welcome to Mammoth Cave. It’s 1840 and my name’s Stephen Bishop. I’ll be your guide, so come with me, by the light of my lantern, into the deepest biggest cave in all of the United States. Down here, beneath the earth, I’m not just a slave. I’m a pioneer. I know the cave’s twists and turns. It taught me to not be afraid of the dark. And watching all these people write their names on the ceiling? Well, it taught me how to read too. Imagine that. A slave, reading. But like I said, down here I’m not just a slave. I’m a guide. I’m a man. And this is my story.

As soon as I read the review of this in the Horn Book I purchased it. Not only does our second grade study slavery (in the context of the Underground Railroad) in the spring, but our third grade does a science unit on caves in the fall. It felt like the perfect bridge between the two grades.

Like all picture book biographies there is a storyline that follows Bishop’s life that is followed up by a historical author’s note that provides more context. I have mixed feelings about that format because I think that kids often skip the two pages of text unless they’re really interested. I suppose that’s fine if they’re getting some good tidbits and thinking points in the story (they do here). However, I think it makes these books perfect for classroom settings where teachers can provide further context and connection and will also be able to read the note aloud to students, ensuring they get that extra information.

I thought the idea of having Bishop tell his own story was an interesting choice. It certainly brings the reader into his life story. I think it also gives the man a voice when he really didn’t have one. According to the note at the end he didn’t leave any real personal record of himself and there wasn’t much left by his white owners or other historical records either. I will point out that this is not #ownvoices, so take that into consideration especially since the book does give a voice to a slave who never really had one.

I’m not sure these are the absolute best illustrations I’ve seen by Collier, but they really tell the story. I actually think the print job on the book could have been better and that the paper and print quality diminished them a bit. Most, if not all the pages (I’m sorry I don’t have the book in front of me right now) have a split level. You see above ground and also below ground which fits perfectly with the idea of the split in Bishops life: above ground- slave, below ground-just a man. There are white people in the pictures, but Bishop is, appropriately, front and center.

Both the cave system and Bishop made for a fascinating picture book biography and would make a good addition to any biography collection.

Side note, going back to print quality. The paper was kind of thin and a little too shiny. It felt kind of cheap. And the dust jacket was like a good several centimeters too long for the hard cover which made it strangely floppy and weird to put into a Gaylord cover. Wth print company? Wth, publisher? Do better. Make nice picture books that will last. The lack of quality kind of makes your second-rating of books about people of color show.

Picture Book Review: Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

ada-twist-scientistAda Twist, Scientist written by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

From Goodreads: Like her classmates, builder Iggy and inventor Rosie, scientist Ada, a character of color, has a boundless imagination and has always been hopelessly curious. Why are there pointy things stuck to a rose? Why are there hairs growing inside your nose? When her house fills with a horrific, toe-curling smell, Ada knows it’s up to her to find the source. Not afraid of failure, she embarks on a fact-finding mission and conducts scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble!

I don’t have much to add about this book that won’t be said. It’s great because Ada is a girl scientist. Even better she is black and her family doesn’t look like a stereotype. All great things. Add to this that the book can serve as a jumping off point for talking about the scientific method and scientific inquiry.

What I will say is that, personally, the rhyme scheme of all three of these books (and Dr. Seuss, too) drive me absolutely bonkers. I can’t read other books afterward because my brain keeps looking for those irritating rhymes. It also causes me to rush through the story. And in general I find it annoying and precious.

The organizer in me loves that the background of many pages, including the end papers, are those nice graph paper squares. I’ve already bought the book for our collection as these are incredibly popular with students, parents and teachers alike. I think purely for the representation it’s worth the money, but I also feel a little hesitant because the author is white. Nothing here points to black culture and Ada and her family are simply colored brown so I don’t think they’re being misrepresented per se. I just wish more of the books about African Americans and blacks were #ownvoices. That’s all. In the meantime, I buy what I can that’s #ownvoices and try to be sure I’m getting good representation with the books that are not. I suppose this one is neutral in that regard. I also kind of hate purchasing it because I know it will be such a big success. That means it will tell publishers that we’re okay with white authors simply shifting to telling stories with characters of color instead of demanding #ownvoices. Still, we need books like this. Girls that are scientists. Black girls that are scientists. Just black girls, period.

Chapter Book Review: Jaden Toussaint, The Greatest by Marti Dumas

Jaden ToussaintJaden Toussaint, The Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time written by Marti Dumas, illustrated by Marie Muravski

From Goodreads: Jaden Toussaint is a five year-old who knows it all. I mean, really knows it all. Animal Scientist. Great Debater. Master of the art of ninja dancing. There’s nothing Jaden Toussaint can’t do. The only problem is that grown-ups keep trying to convince him that, even though he’s really smart, he doesn’t know EVERYTHING. The thing is…he kind of does. This time our hero must use all his super-powered brain power to convince the grown-ups that he needs more screen time.

This book was hilarious and it was humor I think both kids and adults will enjoy. Dumas has really captured the inner thoughts of a young kid in a way that is both funny and serious. Even as an adult I throughly enjoyed reading this.

The chapter breaks are perfect. Just as Jaden has an idea or something new needs to be introduced the current chapter ends and the next chapter begins, complete with chapter title that repeats the introduction. So for example Jaden is talking about wanting to get more screen time to play games online and look up facts on the internet. He’s tried begging and asking various people in his family, but nothing has worked. All that changes with Miss Bates, the text says. Cut to the next chapter entitled “Miss Bates Class”. Most of the chapters are like this and, to me, it reads like good comic timing.

The story itself is probably pretty relatable to kids. Jaden has had a taste of screen time and is trying to finagle some more when his teacher assigns homework. One task they can choose for homework is time on the computer, but Jaden’s parents still say no screen time. Jaden decides to create a petition for all the Kindergarteners to sign asking for more screen time on the homework sheet in order to force his parents to give him some. Also, there is a ninja dance break.

The illustrations are fine. There are little nods to some great African Americans and blacks on the wall of Jaden’s room. The beginning also starts out a little graphic-novelish with sparse text scattered around the illustrations as Jaden’s family is introduced. They provide good breaks for the beginning reader. Also a bonus, the trim size is more like a big-kid chapter book (it’s still a little large). Despite the easy language and format it looks less like an easy reader and more like what older kids would want to pick up.

Since our public library didn’t have this one I bought the first book, but I will be purchasing the next couple “episodes” this year. I highly recommend this to collections that need some easy, easy chapter books that look more grown up. I can’t emphasize enough how kid-like the logic is in the story and how that makes it so appealing for a child audience with a good sense of humor and an adult audience who is familiar with dealing with that logic. Kids love humorous books and this fits the bill perfectly.

Picture Book Review: Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! by Wynton Marsalis

Squeak RumbleSqueak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! a sonic adventure by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers

From Goodreads: What’s that sound? The back door squeeeaks open, sounding like a noisy mouse nearby — eeek, eeeek, eeeek! Big trucks on the highway rrrrrrrumble, just as hunger makes a tummy grrrrumble. Ringing with exuberance and auditory delights, this second collaboration by world-renowned jazz musician and composer Wynton Marsalis and acclaimed illustrator Paul Rogers takes readers (and listeners) on a rollicking, clanging, clapping tour through the many sounds that fill a neighborhood.

This would be an incredibly fun read aloud! There are so many great sounds and Marsalis has captured some of them with awesome onomatopoeia. Like buttering toast. It’s also a fun look around the little boy’s neighborhood and may encourage kids to listen to the sounds around them. I actually think this is an interesting activity and something that would be a lot of fun with a small group of kids or with your own child. We tend to prioritize what we can see so closing your eyes and listening can show you a lot of other things you hadn’t noticed.

The book isn’t just a bunch of sounds. There are some rhymed lines of text that usually end in a sound. I will say sometimes the text felt inserted and odd. It’s not that it didn’t fit, it’s just that I was so into the sounds that the actual words seemed to interrupt the sonic adventure. There were times the text would drop away leaving only the sounds, so it would feel jarring for it to come back. Despite that, the book lilts along nicely.

The art is that fun vintage 60s illustration style that seems to match jazz so well. The colors are bright, but scenes have white backgrounds that make the pictures pop. There are a lot of little nods to jazz greats throughout the illustrations. I’m not sure most kids will pick up on them, but adults reading the story might find them, especially if they’re fans of jazz. The typography is also a nice touch. The sound words are done in a number of fonts that complement the sound they’re spelling.

If there’s money in our budget I’ll be buying this one this year. I would say it’s worth it if you have young students or kids and do storytimes. Also if you are looking to add a good book with a group of diverse characters pictured in it to your music collection.

Picture Book Review: Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford

Congo SquareFreedom in Congo Square written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

From Goodreads: This poetic, nonfiction story about a little-known piece of African American history captures a human’s capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances and demonstrates how New Orleans’ Congo Square was truly freedom’s heart.

I really love that there is a lot of context provided despite the simple text of the actual story. An informative foreword by Freddie Williams Evans, a historian and Congo Square expert, sets the stage explaining what Congo Square is and why it was/is significant. Her final paragraph ties the past to the present noting that although slavery was abolished people still gather in the square on Sundays to share music, dance, and performance. The text of the story if followed by an Author’s Note that reemphasizes some of the history from the foreword and adds some broader historical context.

Maybe unsurprisingly Freedom brought to mind Weatherford’s The Sound That Jazz Makes. The simple rhymed text that belies the deep history and pain of slavery and the role it played in shaping our country. Both are texts that could easily and confidently be shared with young children (I’ll be reading this to my five year old daughter). They don’t exactly flinch in presenting what happened, but they don’t go into gory detail. They both also share something good that came out of so much bad, here the culture of jazz, public performance, and melding of cultures and in Sound actual jazz music.

The illustrations are reminiscent of early American art, but they also brought to mind Benny Andrews with the long legs and arms and thin bodies. I was particularly drawn to the illustration of Saturday night where the slaves sleep in house-shaped buildings lying and stacked in a way that is reminiscent of slave ships. It was interesting how Christie used color palette and line to change the mood of the book as they slaves approached and celebrated Sunday. The colors don’t change significantly, but there is more color with little splashes breaking up the background expanses. The people during the week are bent at right angles or create clean, upright lines, but as soon as Sunday arrives they curve their bodies and arms, stretching up and out, taking up more space on the page. You also see little joyful details on their clothing like fur tails that wave while dancing, necklaces that swing, and instruments. Simply changing the lines really gives the impression of the freedom of the title.

I wish I had read this before I had gone to New Orleans years ago. I would have loved to pay more attention to Congo Square. I highly recommend this for school libraries to help flesh out their historical collections. For parents, I think this could be a good entree into talking about slavery and its history in our country. New Orleans had an interesting relationship with slavery and with the US since it was also a French and Spanish colony before being purchased, but it isn’t a part of the South that is explicitly studied in schools (at least not out here on the West Coast). I think having books like this show that the South was not monolithic in its history and invites children to look more deeply at an area that is rich in culture.


Picture Book Review: Mixed Me! by Taye Diggs

Mixed MeMixed Me! written by Taye Diggs, illustrated by Shane Evans

From Goodreads: Mike has awesome hair. He has LOTS of energy! His parents love him. And Mike is a PERFECT blend of the two of them.
Still, Mike has to answer LOTS of questions about being mixed. And he does, with LOTS of energy and joy in this charming story about a day in the life of a mixed-race child.

My daughter asked to read this one after we bought Chocolate Me! which is from the same author/illustrator team. She loves that book and was really excited to get this one from the library.

I love these books too. They’re very affirming for any kid with differences. Chocolate Me! is about skin color and being black in a world where a lot of children aren’t (this is certainly the case for an African American students in my school). Mixed Me! is about a little boy who is mixed race. It’s a little more upbeat that Chocolate Me!, but both books are completely charming.

I know it shouldn’t need to be said, but any kid who has something different about them (note: that’s every kid!) can see themselves in these stories. Mixed Me! focuses on how Mike sits between two races and how people want him to “choose a side” while he wants to be friends with everyone. Mike also addresses how he and his family don’t appear to go together. I think most kids can identify with that at some point, whether siblings don’t look alike or step parents are in the picture. I think the book touches on some really universal childhood anxieties and conflicts of finding a group of friends and being liked for who you are.  Mike is a fun, confident kid and his perspective is refreshing and endearing. Kids will like him no matter what their own life experience.

The illustrations in Mixed Me! look like collages. Fabric is used for the clothes and other details are made from different papers and textures. Mike is charming with his big hair and bright clothing. The scenes with him and his parents are really sweet.

I highly recommend both these books for their warm and fuzzy stories about fitting in without conforming and loving yourself. They would also go along with beginning-of-the-year themes of friendship, acceptance, and identity. Worth it for any library.

Picture Book Review: The Storyteller by Evan Turk

The StorytellerThe Storyteller written and illustrated by Evan Turk

From Goodreads: Long, long ago, like a pearl around a grain of sand, the Kingdom of Morocco formed at the edge of the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of cool, refreshing water to quench the thirst of the desert, and storytellers to bring the people together.
But as the kingdom grew, the people forgot the dangers of the desert, and they forgot about the storytellers, too. All but one young boy, who came to the Great Square for a drink and found something that quenched his thirst even better: wonderful stories. As he listened to the last storyteller recount the Endless Drought, and the Glorious Blue Water Bird, he discovered the power of a tale well told.

Hmmm…I don’t know about this book. On the first read through I enjoyed it and despite it’s complexity so did my daughter. But now looking at it in the morning, with fresh eyes, it feels a little exoticised. Moroccans telling stories and their swirling desert landscape brings to mind a colonial era fantasy. The first paragraph in the description above is the first paragraph in the book. It’s a little flowery. Not a bad thing, I just worry that it’s drawing on a stereotype of Arab storytellers and souks and the like.

The story itself is fascinating. It’s a story within a story within a story with an incredible twist at the very end that cleverly adds yet another layer. It also draws on the Thousand and One Nights. I think it would make a great teaching tool for writing stories. Still, it doesn’t appear to be traditional, just set in a “traditional” setting and this is compounded by the fact that the author is a white man. He is drawing from a tradition of storytelling in Morocco, a tradition that is apparently dying out, as he explains in a note at the end. I do appreciate the note and sources provided and maybe it’s not a bad thing that he didn’t appropriate an actual story? See why I’m confused?

The book is probably worth it for the illustrations. Because it’s a story about the desert and water the colors are all natural sandy tones with some brownish reds and greens and purples accented with a deep, beautiful blue. Each page has a border that is vaguely North African, but lovely. There are lots of lines and angles and the people are all fairly stylized. I worried the clothing made them all see like the Other in the past with traditional clothing. However, SPOILER ALERT, the final spread features the boy of the story all grown up telling a story. When he is young the clothing is more traditional, but the people in his crowd are mixed in what they look like and are wearing giving it a more contemporary feel and bringing the story current. Quick sketchy lines and subtle patterns add details to the pages, while objects and people in backgrounds are watery splashes of color. The cover seen here doesn’t do it justice. The oranges and yellows are super saturated and the title and border are shiny gold. While the pictures are quite complex, they have the feel of childish art, art that a child could recreate. Some of it looks like it was done in marker and reminded me of Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera Williams. I love it when picture books do that. I could see it inspiring art either in the classroom or at home.

I really want to like the book. Putting aside it’s problems the story is unlike anything I’ve read (that’s not to say there aren’t other stories out there like this) and the illustrations are stunning. It would make a great language arts text for fourth or fifth grade. But it feels problematic to me. I would suggest seeing if you can get it from your public library to assess whether it’s something you would want in your collection. I think you could address some of the issues if you were using it as a classroom book and it might depend on what the Arab portion of your collection looks like. Still…hm.

Picture Book Review: Thank You O Allah! by Ayesha bint Mahmood

Thank you O AllahThank You O Allah! written by Ayesha bint Mahmood, illustrated by Asiya Clarke

From Goodreads: A glorious array of Allah’s never-ending bounties that will evoke a child’s feeling of gratitude for everything God, Allah in Arabic, has given – from faith and knowledge to family and health, from animals and nature to food and life itself.

Thank You O Allah is a title I purchased to diversify our collection. Being an independent school we don’t have a lot of religious books (unless you count our 2 billion Christmas books), but there are a handful. There are a couple “biographies” of saints and religious figures (Mary, Joseph, Moses), but mostly our Christian books take the same form as this book. They’re vaguely religious prayers that examine the everyday life and surroundings of a small child and thank God for them. I’m thinking most prominently about the Caldecott winner Prayer for a Child.

There are a couple places where I’m pretty sure this was originally a British release, but it won’t confuse anyone. The text takes on a repetitious form that really has rhythm to it. In some ways it brought to mind the chanting of Islamic texts. The only annoying thing about it was that each verse starts with “And let’s thank…”. I don’t think the “and” was necessary each time. That’s an incredibly minor quibble, though.

The illustrations are really beautiful. Bright and inviting they show things most children will be familiar with except for maybe the Q’aaba. I love the cover, but I am sucker for rainbows (I blame Lisa Frank!). The book is certainly Islam-centric, but I think the message in it could be shared with any child. I would consider using it around Thanksgiving, when kids are gearing up into the gimmies season, as a reminder of all the good things we already have.

I would recommend purchasing it if for no other reason than to be sure you have at least one Islamic book on your shelves. Christian books abound and end up on shelves even if a library or school isn’t religious, so I don’t see why we can’t then have Islamic books too. Plus exposure to Islam will teach children tolerance and make them less ignorant. In terms of quality this one is pretty good with nice illustrations, good text, and nice print quality. I’ve been desperate to find Islamic holiday books and I’m willing to relax my quality standards so we can have them on the shelf, but no compromises needed here.

Picture Book Review: The Parakeet Named Dreidel by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Parakeet Named DreidelThe Parakeet Named Dreidel written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Suzanne Raphael Berkson

From Goodreads: When young David and Mama and Papa are celebrating Hanukkah one frosty winter evening in Brooklyn, Papa sees a parakeet sitting on the window ledge. He lets the parakeet in and everyone is delighted to find that it speaks Yiddish. They name it Dreidel and it becomes part of their family. Many years later, when David is in college, he is at a party one night and tells Dreidel’s story—only to discover that Zelda, a young woman at the party, owned the bird herself as a child. Papa and Mama are worried that they will have to give their beloved pet back, but then David and Zelda decide to get married after college, and everyone agrees that they should take Dreidel with them as they start their own family.

I know this is a winter/Hanukkah story and September is hardly the time to be thinking about the holidays, but it was such a cute story I wanted to share it. In it the parakeet found by David and his family one cold Hanukkah night turns out many years later to be the escaped pet of a girl he’s been dating in college. While the two families are at odds over what to do about the bird, David and Zelda decide to get married and bring the bird with them to their new home.

The illustrations have a bit of vintage feel like those of Norton Juster. They’re very sweet and Dreidel is particularly cute. The story also has a vintage feel, like one of those stories that is trotted out during the holidays to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The ending ties together so sweetly and neatly. Which isn’t to say the book feels saccharine and like it mourns a bygone era. It’s just an all around good holiday story.

I had a couple quibbles with the book. For starters it reads a bit like a short story that was broken up and put into picture book format. Either that or Singer thought writing a children’s book would be easy. For the most part it flows nicely. Some of the vocabulary is complex, but that’s fine too. But then there are places where I think kids won’t care about the detail or would find you being oddly specific and descriptive. For example when the parakeet first arrives on the windowsill the father, who is narrating the story, says he makes preparations to let the bird in. It’s sort of a stilted series of steps where he notes what kind of climate parakeets are from and moves the menorah out of the way of the window so the bird won’t burn himself. Then, as if in acknowledgement of the stilted nature of it, he says it took only a few moments. I’ve seen writing like that before, but it seems more typical of adult literature than a picture book. It’s a place where the pictures would carry the story and show the steps he took to safely let the bird in instead of narrating it. There are a couple other places like that and it kind of pulled me out of the story.

Also, I don’t know if this is based on a true story, but I think it’s unlikely that this would be parakeet. It would probably be a conure. Parakeets tend not to live very long and this one is at least 15. They also aren’t talkers. They can sort of mimic, but actual words (and the parakeet here learns a lot of words) are not very common and are hard to understand unless you know what you’re listening for. I know this is splitting hairs in terms of complaints and I also know most people won’t notice. However, I picked the book up for a little girl at school who LOVES birds and I think she might notice. Our family has lots of birds, including conures and parakeets, so I was also familiar enough to know that it doesn’t quite line up with the reality of these birds.

Despite all this, I’m going to buy the book as we approach Hanukkah. It was such an adorable story with that feel-good warmth that is so nice around the holidays. Just look at the final picture. 🙂 Bird people will smile.