Thursday, February 15, 2018

Blog Tour: Heroes of Black History: Biographies of Four Great Americans by the Editors of Time for Kids


Just in time for Black History Month 2018, Time for Kids has published a book spotlighting four heroes of black history from Harriet Tubman, to Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and, of course, Barack Obama. Each one of these courageous Americans has contributed so much in the fight for social justice for African Americans, and in fact, for all persons of color.

 Each 40 page biography begins with a look at the person's childhood, influences of family and school that helped them become who they were/are. Each section also contains a mix of photographs and illustrations as well as maps and inserts with additional information to give a more depth to each person's achievements, and ends with a two page recap of important dated in their lives. Heroes of Black History is ideal for readers in middle school, and the large print and clear sentences makes this an especially good book for older reluctant readers.

Young readers will learn about what an important part of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman was, and how, in the first half of the 1800s, she led over 300 slaves to freedom, risking her own life each time. Later, during the Civil War, Harriet worked tirelessly caring for injured Union soldiers, and, at the same time, continuing to help free more than 800 slaves. Harriet is truly an inspiring and audacious hero for kids.

Jackie Robinson was not just a great athlete, but also a groundbreaking African American. First, in the US Army during WWII when he stood up for what was right, even facing a court martial for not giving up his seat on a military bus after the army was desegregated. Later, Jackie became the first African American to play on a major league team when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Imagine how much courage it must have taken in the face of all the discrimination and prejudice Jackie had to deal with in his fight for social justice.

Rosa Parks probably never imagined how much her life would change the day she refused to give up her seat on a city bus in 1955 in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. Despite fear, Rosa also believed in fighting for what was right and she was tired of living a life of separate and unequal. Rosa's arrest led to the famous bus boycott in Montgomery when working people refused to ride city buses to their jobs in solidarity with Rosa. After buses were desegregated almost a year later, Rosa spent the rest of her life working for social justice for African Americans. Rosa is an inspiring example of how one person can really make a difference.

Even before he was elected our first African American president, Barack Obama has spent his adult
life serving people. First, as a community organizer in a poor section of Chicago, advocating for and with the people there to improve their lives and their community. Later, Barack became a United States Senator, with the same ideas about improving life, especially for the African American communities he represented. And that didn't change much when he was sworn in as President Obama on January 20, 2009.

President Obama is the only present day hero included in this book, and I think his story shows young readers that he is more than just a public figure, that his family is of utmost importance to him and it is from them that he garners the desire to fight for change to make the world a better place. I hope kids will realize, as I have after reading this book, that he served his time as President with grace and dignity for 9 years, showing strength, humor, and resiliency in the face of so much opposition. And I believe kids today will reap the benefits of this youthful leader who still has many great years of achievement ahead of him.

Heroes of Black History is an excellent resource for both school and home libraries. In addition to the book, the editors of Time for Kids have also produced a detailed downloadable PDF Curriculum Guide that also includes a printable Fast Facts sheet for all four of these heroes.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was provided by Blue Slip Media

Monday, February 12, 2018

Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter


What better day to look at a book about John Newbery than today, the day when the 2018 Newbery Award is announced, along with all the other ALA Youth Media Awards. And while most people know about the Newbery Award, few know about the man it is named for. No need to wonder any more - Balderdash! tells the story of John Newbery and his novel idea of publishing books for young readers that they would want to read.

Way back when, that is, before 1726, children had only preachy poems and fables or religious books to read, while adults had all kinds of exciting, adventure stories available to them. Then John Newbery, who had been a boy who loved reading more than working on the family farm, decided that children should have good books to read as well. Newbery was a follower of philosopher John Locke who thought that children should have books that were 'easy and pleasant.'

Putting his ideas into practice, Newbery first learned the printing business and then, as soon as he could, he set off for London, opening his own print shop in the heart of St. Paul's Churchyard. It was here that Newbery begin publishing books for young readers, enticing them to want to read books like The History of Little Goody Two-ShoesTom Thumb and Giles Gingerbread by selling them with an accompanying ball or pincushion.

Of course, there were also ABC books, science books, history books and geography books, but the kids loved the books that Newbery published and sold so much, they fell apart from use. Pretty soon, other publishers followed Newbery's example and began to publish children's books as well.

Markel has written a wonderful, engaging book that really captures all the enthusiasm that Newbery must have felt when he began his career in children's book publishing. The text is fun and lighthearted, but provides readers with a clear picture of what life was like in the early 1700s, particularly for children. One thing does need to be taken into consideration when reading this book - books were only bought by people with money and not everyone went to school and learned to read. Also, the books Newbery published back then probably wouldn't appeal to today's readers very much.

Carpenter's mixed-media illustrations only add to the enjoyment of the text, extending and enhancing it with the same lighthearted attitude, and at the same time, both reflect the passion John Newbery felt about his work. Without a doubt, this is my favorite illustration, and I can almost guarantee that once your young readers learn the meaning of Balderdash! you will be hearing it frequently - I know I did (hint - look on the front jacket flap):


Markel has also included lots of useful back matter for further exploration about the life of John Newbery, and children's book publishing.

Balderdash! is a book that should be on the shelf of every children's home and/or school library. It's just that good.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Chronicle Books

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Black History Month: Some New Favorite Picture Books




February is Black History Month, and every year, there are more, but definitely not enough, wonderful books published that offer inspiring stories about people and events who have contributed to Black History. Here is a small roundup of some of the newest books (OK, there's one older book, too). For even more suggestions of books that can be read at home or in the classroom, please visit: Colours of Us.
Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson,
illustrated by Frank Morrison
2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 40 pages
In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an army of peaceful protesters to mobilize against Jim Crow Laws and to fight for African American freedom. But if adults marched, they knew there would be trouble with their jobs and they had families to take care of. King's call was answered by Birmingham's children. Despite the fears of the narrator's parents, she and her brother choose to march in their place, knowing that they might be arrested. The young marchers face not only jail, but also water hoses, police dogs, and angry white people, yet, they keep going day after day. By keeping the sister and brother nameless, they represent 'everychild' who risked their lives and marched in this Children's Crusade. The simplicity with which the text of this book is written makes clear the determination of these young marchers, who never wavered in their mission. Morrison's boldly colorful oil painted illustrations realistically reflect the courage, strength and determination of these brave young people. Be sure to read the Afterword, and Artist's Statement in the back matter. Complement this book by paring it with Cynthia Levinson's The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist
Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson by Leda Schubert,
illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
2018, Little Bee Publishers, 40 pages
When Raven Wilkinson was 5 years old, her saw her first ballet and was smitten with dance. When she was 9, her uncle gave her ballet lessons for her birthday. It didn't take long for her teacher, the well-respected Madame Maria Swoboda, to recognize that Raven was a student with real talent. In 1953, Raven started Columbia University, and auditioned for the Ballet Russe. In 1955, at Raven's third audition, she was finally selected to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The ballet traveled quite a bit, and, being African American, Raven often met with racist attitudes in southern states that sometimes almost turned into physical danger. Nevertheless, Raven stayed with Ballet Russe for six years, leaving in 1962 for Holland and the Dutch National Ballet, where she danced for seven years. Returning to the US, Raven danced with the New York City Opera until 1985. Raven was a truly courageous trailblazer, paving the way for Misty Copeland to become the first African American principle dancer with the American Ballet Theater. Theodore Taylors line illustrations have the quality of simple comic book images but make no mistake, they convey with clarity both the happiness and seriousness of Raven Wilkinson's career and they do not shy away from the racist obstacles she faced as a young African American dancer. Be sure to read the forward by Misty Copeland, and the Afterword by Raven Wilkinson. Pair this with Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird. 
The United States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen,
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
2018, Balzer & Bray, 40 pages
Jackie Robinson had to deal with segregation every day of his life growing up in Pasadena, California, including in college despite being one of the most talented athletes in the country. Realizing he could never play professional sports because he was African American, Jackie left college, and when the US entered WWII, he enlisted in the army. The army was still segregated, but by 1944, Jackie had been promoted to second lieutenant. When the army was ordered desegregated, Jackie got on a military bus one day and sat where he wanted, but not where the bus driver wanted him to sit - in the back of the bus. Jackie refused to move. He was arrested and faced a court martial - but he stood up for what he believed was right and won. Jackie went on to become the first African American to play on a major league baseball team - the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bardhan-Quallen has written an inspiriting biography of this trailblazer who never backed down because of his race. Christie's acryla gouache illustrations reflect the quite dignity of Jackie Robinson's life. Pair this with Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery
Between the Lines: How Ernie Banks Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery
by Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Bryan Collier
2018, Paula Wiseman Books, 48 pages
When Ernie Barnes was a young boy, he loved to draw, and after seeing the art hanging in the library where his mother worked, he knew he wanted to be an artist. But becoming an artist wasn't the easiest thing. Because he was 6'3" Ernie was recruited to play football, first for his high school, than in college, and finally in the pros. But Ernie never gave up his dream of being an artist, even after his coach tore up his sketchbook. As a football player, Ernie observed everything he saw with the eye of an artistic, not a player and much of what he saw was later realized on canvas. Luckily, after being injured, Ernie was offer a position with the New York Jets - as official team artist at full salary. I'm a girl who doesn't know very much about football, so I really appreciated the way Wallace focused on Ernie's drive to be an artist rather than a player. Wisely, Collier didn't try to imitate Ernie's style of art, creating his own dynamic watercolor and collage illustrations. There's plenty of back matter in this well researched book, including a Historical Note, an Author's Note, an Illustrator's Note. There are also suggestions for learning more, books for further reading, videos and films of interest, and Additional Resources.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa by Andrea Davis Pinkney with
Scat Cat Monroe
illustrated by Brian Pinkney
2002, Jump at the Sun, 32 pages
Ella Fitzgerald was the Queen of Scat, so it only makes sense that her story should be told by the very hip Scat Cat Monroe, complete with zoot suit and spats. Scat Cat traces Ella's rise to stardom, dividing her story into four record tracks, cut to cut. Track 1, Hoofin' in Harlem, covers career from its beginning at the Apollo Theater's talent contest as scared 17 year-old dancer turned singer.Track 2, Jammin' at Yale, finds Ella a singer with the Chick Webb Orchestra making beautiful music together at Yale. Track 3, Stompin' at the Savoy, Ella and the Chick Webb Orchestra play Harlem's very popular Savoy Ballroom, where Ella sang and dance her heart out and the two made beautiful music together, even defeating the Benny Goodman Orchestra in a Battle of the Bands. Track 4, Carnegie Hall Scat, finds Ella joining the king of bebop Dizzy Gillespie. It didn't take Ella long to make bebop, "jazz on the wild side," all her own. Together, Ella, by now truly the "first Lady of Song," and Dizzy brought bebop to Carnegie Hall. Scat Cat's jazzy narration is reflected in Brian Pinkney's sometimes playful, always vibrantly colored acrylic on scratchboard illustrations really capture all the energy of a jazz track. Jazz is a true African American music genre, and Black History Month is an ideal time to introduce it and its history to young readers. This pairs nicely with the Pinkney's book Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra.

Monday, February 5, 2018

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson


It's 1961, just a few years after the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries, when a call went out to young Cubans age 10-19 to become part of a volunteer literacy brigade. The idea was for these young people to go into the rural parts of their country where illiteracy was high and teach the campesinos there to read and write.

Living in Havana with her parents, her brothers, and her abuela, Lora Diaz Llero, 13, also hears the call for volunteers and decides she want to join. At first, her parents are totally against it, after all, Lora lives in Havana, and in the country, there is no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilet. It is her abuela who finally persuades her parents to sign the necessary papers. Soon, Lora is off to Varadero Training Camp, and then to the Escambray Mountains where Lora and the other Conrado Benítez Brigadistas (named after a martyred literacy teacher, murdered by the CIA) are divided into squads and given more orientation.

Finally, Lora is taken to the small farm of Luis and Veronica Santana and their three children. There, Lora's job is to teach the family, along with four neighbors, how to read and write, and in return, she will help the family tending crops, washing clothes on rocks in the river, fetching the day's water supply, and even learn to ride a horse.

Most of the time, things go well. Lora makes friends with the other brigadistas and it takes no time at all for her to bond with the Santanas. Still, the first brigadista year is not without danger. There is mention of the failed Bay of Pigs military invasion by the CIA, shortly after Lora arrives in Varadero and there are still counterrevolutionaries hiding in the mountains, who are specifically targeting the brigadistas. And though Lora has promised her parents that if things got too hard, she would leave the brigadistas and return home, and even though she was tempted to do that at one point, she never gives up.

My Brigadista Year is a coming of age story in which readers can really see how much Lora matures between April and December 1961. As Lora confronts various problems and difficulties, she learns to figure out the best way to solve them. The story is told from Lora's perspective, in the first person, and although I feel like she is a very flat character, she does a good job of narrating what she is going through. In fact, none of the characters really stood out for me, nor did I feel they were very memorable. What probably will stick with me the most is the information Paterson included about the literacy program.

Interestingly, Paterson really seems to have taken pains to keep My Brigadista Year relatively free of partisan politics. She neither promotes Castro's Cuba, only mentioning communism once throughout the novel, nor does she presents the United States as a better alternative. Paterson also touches on social attitudes based on skin color. Lora says her mother kept her out of the sun so her skin doesn't get a dark tan, something that Lora resents. Yet, she is quite taken with Marissa, one of her roommates at Varadero, thinking what a beautiful girl she is with her light tan skin, clearly indicating that light skin is more valued than darker skin. Later, in the country, this is reinforced when her friend Maria falls for a very dark skinned boy, but is devastated when her family forbids her to have anything to do with him. None of this is followed through, however, just there for readers to draw their own conclusions.

My Brigadista Year is a very interesting though rather at times a didactic work of historical fiction based in real events. And although Cuba's past is not a history most young Americans are familiar with, this book will only give them cursory information about Cuba in the early 1960s. It is up to the reader to explore Cuba's history further. By the way, the literacy program was one of Cuba's most successful campaigns after Castro took over, bringing the literacy rate there down from approximately 23% to 4%.

Be sure to read the Author's Note for background information on the brigadista program and Paterson's reasons for writing this novel. There is a helpful map at the front of the novel, and a very useful timeline of Cuban history at the back of it.

The publisher has provided an extensive teacher's discussion guide for My Brigadista Year HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC provided by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Here is a short (8 minute) film about Cuba's literacy program, along with interviews of some of the people who participated in it back in 1961:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar


It's 1942 and while Britain and the rest of the world are engaged in WWII, in Bombay (today's Mumbai), the Quit India Movement, whose goal is to rid India of British rule and gain independence, begins with a speech by Mahatma Gandhi on August 8th. The very next day, Gandhi is arrested, but it doesn't stop many from still having faith in the Quit India Movement.

Gandhi, a practitioner of Ahimsa, or civil disobedience, had already asked that one member of every family become a freedom fighter for Indian independence. Anjali Joshi, 10, a member of the high born Brahmin caste, knows that some kids in her class have family members who are freedom fighters, but after Gandhi's speech, she is more than surprised to learn that her mother has also joined the fight. And one of the things her mother is focused on is attempting to make the lives of those considered to be untouchable better (Gandhi referred to the untouchable caste as Harjian, meaning children of God, but Anjali learns that they consider it an insult and would rather be referred to as Dalit, meaning oppressed).

At first, Anjali isn't really too happy, especially when her mother makes her burn all of her beautiful foreign-made ghagra-cholis and replaces them with plainer khadi, a handwoven homespun cotton they spin themselves. She is particularly unhappy after her mother shows kindness towards the young Dalit boy, Mohan, who cleans their outhouse, causing him to run away, and then decides that Anjali and she will clean the outhouse themselves.

Slowly and reluctantly, however, Anjali begins to support her mother's attempts at being an activist. They begin attending Freedom Movement meetings together, and after visiting the basti where the Dalits live and getting to know the people better, Anjali decides that it is unfair that the young Dalits are not able to go to school, too. They begin teaching the children in the basti, even finding help from a very surprising source. Soon, Anjali and her mother are working to make it possible for the kids to actually attend the school that Anjali goes to, getting uniforms and tiffins all ready for them.

But the weekend before their first day of school, rioting breaks out between the Hindus and Muslims and schools are closed. Later, Anjali's mother is arrested on charges of helping to instigate the riots. While in prison and still practicing Ahimsa, her mother goes on a hunger strike, and although Anjali is afraid for her, she decides to carry on their work, even as she realizes that she herself must unlearn the prejudices and superstitions that have always been so much a part of her life.

Ahimsa is a debut novel for Supriya Kelkar, and is based on the experiences of her great grandmother, who had joined Gandhi's Freedom Movement so her husband could continue working, much the same way Anjali's mother did.

I found Ahimsa to be a very interesting novel about social injustice in 1940s India that covers quite a lot of historical and political ground, some of which may not be familiar to young American readers. But, Kelkar has taken great pains to make this important period in Indian history accessible, although at times she waxes a little on the didactic side when it comes to describing the political situation.

One of the things I did like is that Kelkar has included a lot of interesting, personal details in her narrative descriptions, including what daily life was like, the kinds of clothing people wore, the food they ate, games kids played and holidays celebrated as well as accounts of living conditions of someone in the Brahmin class, the basti where the Dalits lived, and even a bit about how the members of the British Raj (rulers) lived. These are the kinds of details that really work to bring a story to life.

The other thing I liked is that Kelkar has written flawed characters who learn from their mistakes. Anjali's mother is an enthusiastic freedom fighter, so enthusiastic that she can't see better alternatives to some of her actions, and sometimes not listening to the very people she is trying to help. Even Anjali is flawed, at first not really understanding what her country is going through, but slowly becoming more enlightened, though no less feisty and headstrong, which can and does get her into trouble. Even Gandhi and some of his ideas are presented as somewhat flawed, as Anjali discovers the more involved she becomes in the Freedom Movement.

Ahimsa is a very readable novel and a nice introduction to the Freedom Movement in India. It is also a novel about trying to make a difference, about social injustice, and about resistance, and although these themes are put into the context of Indian history, they will certainly resonate with today's young readers.

Be sure to read the Author's Note for a detailed overview of this period in Indian history and the leaders involved in it. Kelkar has also included a list of books for Further Reading and a very helpful glossary.

Although it's for slightly older readers, think about pairing Ahimsa with Padma Venkatraman's Climbing the Stairs for another view of India's fight for independence.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

I've read a number of books that are set in Indian or have Indian characters and often the kids in them play a game called Gilli Danda. If you've wondered, as I have, what the game is and how it is played, you may find a helpful article HERE 
 
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