Before She Was Harriet

Before She Was Harriet explores the many roles Harriet Tubman had throughout her life. Although she is most well known for her role in guiding slaves to freedom, Harriet also served as a spy in the Union army, a suffragist, and a nurse. In this Coretta Scott King Honor book, readers will be inspired by the various ways that Harriet demonstrated courage again and again and again.

Here are three reasons to love this book:

  • Illustrator James E. Ransome’s gorgeous watercolor illustrations offer unique points of view and interesting uses of color.
  • Author Lesa Cline-Ransome tells Harriet’s story in verse. The text is sparse, but lyrical and lovely.
  • The perfect structure tells us Harriet’s life in reverse (and the title hints at this!), starting with Harriet in old age and taking us back all the way to her early days as a young girl enslaved and working in the fields.

Before She Was Harriet is a great choice for readers six to ten years old. It would make an excellent historical selection, but could also be used to demonstrate the many facets of a person’s life.

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera is a beautiful example of how narrative nonfiction can both captivate and educate. From the opening line “One summer morning deep in the nest,” readers are immediately drawn into the world of the working honeybee. I dare you to find a textbook that will teach young readers as much about the honeybee – effectively, so they actually remember! – as this book does.

Here are three reasons to love this book:

  • The melding of science and poetry. Candace Fleming’s text packs a powerful punch. Consider the conclusion of the opening line. “One summer morning deep in the next, a brand-new honeybee squirms, pushes, chews through the wax cap of her solitary cell and into… a teeming, trembling flurry. Hummmmm!”
  • Eric Rohmann’s illustrations transport readers into the middle of the beehive. The pictures are detailed and stunning.
  • Winner of the Sibert Medal (awarded to notable nonfiction books for children), you can be sure Honeybee is amazing, as the quality of children’s nonfiction works continues to rise.

I highly recommend this book for ages 6-10. Honeybee would be a wonderful supplement as part of an insect unit study or a spring/summer nature study.

A Wish in the Dark

A middle grade reimagining of Les Miserables? Yes, please! A rich, Thai-inspired, action-packed fantasy? Thank you, Christina Soontornvat! Beautifully written and expertly told, A Wish in the Dark is a most welcome addition to children’s literature.

Here are three reasons to love this book:

  • Like Valjean in Les Mis, Pong struggles to reconcile his past with his future, but a strong sense of honor pushes him to seek justice for the oppressed. He’s a hero to root for.
  • Soontornvat’s worldbuilding is exquisite, brimming with light that radiates through the page.
  • A Wish in the Dark boldly explores difficult topics, including oppression and privilege.

I recommend this book for all middle grade book lovers, especially those between the ages of 8 and 12. Readers will love being swept away in the absorbing story set in a world of light.

Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story)

Daniel Nayeri’s Printz-winning novel is beautifully crafted, and we’ll discuss its many merits, but can we take a minute to talk about the cover by artist David Curtis and designed by Elizabeth Parisi and Semadar Megged? In addition to being gorgeous, it offers hints into the stories swirling together inside. So consider this an example of when it is perfectly acceptable to judge a book by its cover – both are fantastic.

Now on to the novel itself. Based on real events, Nayeri tells about his past through the eyes of his thirteen-year-old self. We learn about his family’s wealth and privileged life in Iran. We experience the anguish of a family split apart after his mother becomes a Christian and flees Iran with the kids. We marvel at his mother’s fortitude in facing great challenges as a single mother refugee. And we can’t help but feel great empathy for Daniel as he navigates childhood without having a firm sense of where he belongs.

Here are three reasons to love this book:

  • I didn’t find out until after I had read Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) that it is the first title published by the new imprint Levine Querido, run by none other than Arthur A. Levine, editor of Harry Potter fame. Due to Levine’s success record, you have to know he had an abundance of material to choose from. The fact that he chose Nayeri’s is quite the endorsement.
  • The swirling story structure won’t be as familiar with American readers, but it’s a beautiful way to tell a story. Cultural stories layered with Nayeri’s life experiences create a rich literary experience that is still accessible to a younger audience.
  • Nayeri’s real-life story is filled with many painful past experiences, but the book manages to maintain a hopeful outlook on life. Although it doesn’t try to thump the reader over the head with a story of perseverance and grit, I imagine many readers will chastise themselves after they realize how much they complain about circumstances that aren’t as big of a deal as they think.

I highly recommend this book for readers thirteen and up (including adults!). Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) would make a great selection for thoughtful readers looking to broaden their cultural awareness.

Hair Love

Hair Love, written by Matthew Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison, is a beautiful tribute to loving father-daughter relationships everywhere.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • This could have been an overly sweet picture book, but Cherry and Harrison have balanced the poignant content with the right amount of fun and energy. The result is a heartwarming story instead of a saccharine one.
  • The protagonist is proud of all the different things her hair can do. She doesn’t want to change her hair – she just wants it to cooperate for her special day!
  • The story demonstrates the lengths fathers will go to make their daughters happy.

Hair Love would be a beautiful gift choice – either from father to daughter for a special day or daughter to father for Father’s Day. I recommend this book for kids ages 3-7.

Trombone Shorty

“Lots of kids have nicknames, but I want to tell you the story of how I got mine. Just like when you listen to your favorite song, let’s start at the beginning. Because this is a story about music.”

And so Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews welcomes his readers into the story of his early years. Trombone Shorty, written by Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier, demonstrates how the path to greatness often begins when we are young. (My favorite part of the book is in the backmatter, where readers see an actual photograph of a very young Andrews playing his trombone on stage for Bo Diddley.)

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Instead of focusing on his accomplishments as a world-class musician, Andrews chose to tell the story of his youth and how he became a trombonist. This makes the story more relatable and I imagine many young people will be inspired to pick up a new instrument themselves.
  • Illustrator Bryan Collier’s collages are a perfect fit – the different shapes, textures, and colors reflect the essence of jazz itself.
  • Trombone Shorty is both an autobiography of a fabulous young musician and an homage to the vibrant jazz community in New Orleans. The reader feels as though Andrews couldn’t have become the musician he is without the influence of his surroundings, and now Andrews is giving back and carrying on the jazz tradition in New Orleans. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship.

I recommend Trombone Shorty for ages 4-10. It is perfect for introducing jazz music to a young audience. After readers have finished the story, I suggest finding some of Andrews’ recordings or videos to listen and see the trombonist he became.

Thunder Rose

Thunder Rose is a welcome addition to the tradition of American tall tales. Author Jerdine Nolen has created the larger-than-life Rose, who rolls lightning into a ball, twists iron, and tames stampeding steers.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • There are less tall tales featuring female protagonists; even fewer non-white females. Thunder Rose gives us a valiant hero to embrace from an underrepresented group.
  • Illustrator Kadir Nelson’s illustrations convey the great expanse of the western frontier. His choice of viewpoint is unique and interesting – the reader is often looking up at Thunder Rose, which adds to the greatness of her personality.
  • Nolen has masterfully written a tale that has the feel of an old folktale, but also feels fresh.

Just under two thousand words, Thunder Rose is quite long, even though it is a fully illustrated book. While younger children may still be captivated by the tale, I would recommend this book for ages 6-10. It would be a great addition to a group of stories including Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry.

Let the Children March

Let the Children March tells the story of the Children’s March that took place in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Under the direction of Dr. King, citizens gathered to construct a plan that would combat racially unjust Jim Crows laws. The trouble was that many adults feared they would lose their jobs if they participated in demonstrations. Their children volunteered to march in their place, and Let the Children March portrays their stories.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • This book is inspiring for young people. Our society often diminishes what kids can do, and this book shows them the power they have and how they can indeed make their voices heard.
  • Author Monica Clark-Robinson chose to write this story in the first-person perspective of one of the marchers, which makes the account feel that much closer.
  • As one would expect, Frank Morrison’s illustrations are truly gorgeous. I also appreciate the unique angles he uses to recreate scenes that were captured in photographs.

Let the Children March does a fabulous job of being educational without being didactic or bland. It reads like a story while shining a spotlight on our nation’s troubled history. I recommend this book for ages 6-10.

Kitchen Dance

Side by side with stacked plates they glide.
My father twirls my mother by one hand.
Laughing, she spins into his arms,
then out again, like a yo-yo on a string.

And so two children spy on their parents as an evening kitchen clean-up turns into a celebration of love and family. Maurie J. Manning has created a beautiful testimony to family love in her lyrical and exuberant Kitchen Dance.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • The story is a beautiful glimpse of an ordinary moment, made extraordinary. Love oozes from the pages – between husband and wife, parents and children.
  • Manning’s artwork is glorious – full of color and color. In particular, I love the facial expressions on every page.
  • Though not a rhyming text, Manning’s writing is rhythmic. Readers will feel like they are swaying to the music and part of the dance.

Kitchen Dance is a beautiful family read-aloud, particularly for children ages 3-7. It would be a wonderful choice for a bedtime read.

I Got the Rhythm

I thought of a rhythm in my mind…

And so begins a young girl’s celebration of dance, music, and rhythm . I Got the Rhythm inspires kids to express their inner selves to connect with others in their community.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Author Schofield-Morrison’s text encourages readers to experience the rhythm with all their senses. Kids will want to clap and snap right along with the young dancer in the pages.
  • Morrison’s buoyant illustrations add another layer of liveliness. I love the diversity of characters and wide range of vibrant colors.
  • The strong sense of community in this book demonstrates how we can lift others up while at the same time being true to ourselves.

I Got the Rhythm is a great read-aloud for ages 3-6. For extra fun, kids could act out the motions as they happen in the book, ending with a big group dance party when the book is finished.