Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer

I knew very little about Voices of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement before checking it out from my public library. Nor did I know much about its titular hero. I am thankful to author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Ekua Holmes for telling Fannie’s story and sharing this book with the world.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • I love that it reads like a mini novel-in-verse. In a compilation of 21 illustrated poems, this book manages to give the reader a sweeping survey of Fannie Lou Hamer’s life. Weatherford’s language is exquisite, and the book earned a Sibert Honor, which recognizes achievement in nonfiction books for young people.
  • Ekua Holmes painting and collage artwork is rich with color and intricate in detail. Holmes received a Caldecott Honor for Voices of Freedom, which is an amazing feat for a debut picture book.
  • I love that this is a picture book made for older readers. I think we forget that tweens benefit from the beautiful artwork and rich language that we find in picture books.

I believe Voices of Freedom is best for readers ages 10 and up. Younger kids could also listen along, but I think a slightly more mature audience will benefit more from the content. This book would make a wonderful addition to any U. S. History curriculum or study on the Civil Rights in the United States.

New Kid

The ALA held their summer conference (virtually) earlier this week. While the award winners are announced at the winter conference, the winners give their acceptance speeches at the summer conference. Isn’t it nice the ALA gives the recipients time to prepare eloquent and thought-out statements? Maybe Hollywood should take note, but I digress…

This year, Jerry Craft was awarded both the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Author Award for New Kid. The Newbery recognition is particularly significant, because it is the first graphic novel to win the most prestigious award in children’s literature. (Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl and Cece Bell’s El Deafo earned Newbery Honors.)

New Kid is a heartwarming story about a twelve-year-old boy who is a new student in an academically demanding private school. He also happens to be one of the few students of color. The story reflects his inner struggle to fit in with his peers while remaining true to his identity.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • New Kid shows a young Black boy living an ordinary life, with the ordinary ups and downs any twelve-year-old will understand. You can read why this is so important (and sadly still not a common occurrence in children’s books) in Craft’s moving acceptance speech.
  • Craft’s artistic style is expressive, fun, and full of life.
  • I love how middle grade graphic novels present important themes while still keeping the tone light. I think it makes difficult and complex topics more approachable for a younger audience.

New Kid is a great addition to any library. Kids as young as eight may enjoy reading it; I think it will be most relevant for kids ten and up.

Long Way Down

My first reaction after reading Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down was not favorable. I picked up the book soon after it received Newbery, Printz, and Coretta Scott King honors, and I was not prepared for such a raw story. I nearly discounted the book altogether because it differed so much from my misconceived notions of what I thought it would be.

And yet…

I still think of this book. It has stayed with me more than many others I have read. While there are lots reasons to read a book, I think it is easy to discount books that make us uncomfortable, and this book makes me uncomfortable. Having said that, I think it is also one of the best books I have ever read.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Jason Reynolds’ style. This was my first Reynolds’ read. His words cut to the heart of the matter in a beautiful and deceivingly simple way. My favorite poem was the short “And You Know”: “it’s weird to know/ a person you don’t know/ and at the same time/ not know/ a person you know,/ you know?”
  • The structure. In general, I love the novel-in-verse format, but Long Way Down has the added structure of descending the floors in an apartment building. The protagonist takes an elevator from his floor to the main level, and at each floor, a new person enters the elevator. Except the added person is really a ghost of someone who has been killed from an act of violence, and our protagonist is riding the elevator while he contemplates seeking revenge against his brother’s murderer. Incredible structure creates palpable tension.
  • The honesty. As I have alluded to, this is not a fluffy read, and I appreciate that Reynolds does not diminish the protagonist’s internal struggle.

Long Way Down is best for high schoolers. It could be a good choice for a reading group that is willing to have difficult but honest conversations.

The Undefeated

I try to read the medalists and honorees of the major ALA book awards every year, so you can be sure I took notice when The Undefeated earned recognition in the Caldecott, Newbery, and Coretta Scott King award categories. Inspiring and beautiful, The Undefeated deserved its many wonderful accolades.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Kwame Alexander’s triumphant text. I’ve read several of Alexander’s books, and I have yet to encounter another author whose words pop off the page the way his do. He captures so much life in a few short lines per page.
  • Kadir Nelson’s luxurious illustrations. This is one of those books that you really must see in physical form to fully appreciate the gorgeous illustrations. I was stunned by the difference between what I could see in a digital preview versus what I could experience through the physical page.
  • The universal appeal. The short text and illustrations make this book accessible to young audiences, but the biographical stories in the back matter are both engaging and educational for older children. This book isn’t afraid to confront difficult history, but it is done in such a way that it can pack a powerful punch for all ages, which is an incredible feat.

The Undefeated is probably best for ages 6 and up. I think it could initiate some wonderful conversations particularly for kids 8-10 years old.

The Oldest Student

I love reading picture book biographies of people I have never heard of. Especially if they are seemingly ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. My kids and I recently enjoyed learning about the amazing Mary Walker, who not only lived to an incredibly old age, but learned to read when she was 116. Incredible. Author Rita L. Hubbard and illustrator Oge Mora have honored her story in The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Hubbard presents Mary Walker’s persistence in an honest but hopeful way. Readers learn of Mary’s hardships but also feel her joy when she finally achieves her great goal of learning to read.
  • Mora’s youthful and vibrant illustrations seem to mirror the energetic soul of a person who lives to 121 years of age.
  • Stories of persistence are great for kids, and I love how this book can relate to kids in a very tangible way, since many young children are learning to read themselves.

This book is great for all ages, but I think it will land especially well with six to ten year olds.

Supporting Black Authors and Illustrators

After taking a break from the blog for several months due to personal reasons, I look forward to posting about books again soon.

Like others around the country, I am doing my best to listen and learn from the black members of my community. For me, this education includes reading books that were created by black authors and illustrators.

For the rest of this year, I will only feature books by black authors and illustrators in my posts. I believe their voices must be heard. This doesn’t mean that I will stop highlighting their work when the year is finished. I have tried to be racially inclusive of books I feature here, and will continue to work towards this goal.

I believe reading promotes compassion and empathy. It helps us see another’s point of view. To understand their circumstances. To walk in their shoes. I look forward to reading books that help me do this, and I hope you will join me.

What Miss Mitchell Saw

I love the current trend of infusing lyrical storytelling into non-fiction picture books. In picture book biographies, it is also becoming more common to feature people that history has previously ignored.

What Miss Mitchell Saw, written by Hayley Barrett, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, demonstrates all that is lovely in this golden age of children’s non-fiction. The poetic text is as lovely on the ears as the gorgeous illustrations are on the eyes. The story in and of itself is wonderful, and I consider it a bonus that my children and I could learn about real-life astronomer Maria Mitchell while enjoying a compelling story about a woman who bucked the conventions of her time.

I recommend this beautiful picture book for all ages, though I would suggest the target age is 6-10 years old. What Miss Mitchell Saw would make a lovely accompaniment to a history study (particularly during Women’s History Month) or a unit on astronomy.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Confession: I read The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart in May of 2019. I loved this book so much that I couldn’t think of how I could adequately do it justice in a blog post. To the point that I went through a freeze in writing any blog posts at all.

I still feel this way. So rather than share a synopsis, I want you to know this book has all the feels and moved me in a way no other novel has. Readers will find hope, despair, adventure, intense friendship, humor, community, and even a goat on a bus. Most of all, they will find love. Love for those we have lost and love for those we have now.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If it were up to me, I would cover it with every award sticker for which it is eligible. This middle grade novel is probably best for ages ten and up, and I do mean “and up” – this one is for readers of all ages.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar

It’s a good sign any time my kids ask me to re-read a book as soon as I finish it the first time. Adding a little science in the text makes it even better. Top it all off with a protagonist who reminds me of Mo Willems’ Pigeon, and the book must be a winner.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach is a laugh-out-loud story of metamorphosis. In a classic case of “Is it ready yet?”, an impatient caterpillar doesn’t think he can hold out for two whole weeks in his chrysalis to become a butterfly. Much hilarity ensues as he tries to talk himself up to complete his mission.

The text is simple while seamlessly incorporating sophisticated vocabulary, such as metamorphosize and chrysalis. The vivid illustrations provide additional humor to the story. (See the spread with the squirrel overhearing the caterpillar arguing with himself, and you’ll know exactly what I mean!)

The Very Impatient Caterpillar is a wonderful choice for all ages, but I think it is particularly suited for ages 6-8. For younger children, it is a humorous and simple introduction to the concept of how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. For older children, it would make a light-hearted read-aloud supplement to any scientific metamorphosis study.

The Bridge Home

Padma Venkatraman’s The Bridge Home is both beautiful and heartbreaking. This book confronts the difficult realities of poor, homeless children in India, much as Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water did for showing readers the lives of young people who don’t have access to clean water.

Main character Viji persuades her disabled sister Rukku to run away with her, in order to escape their abusive father. With nowhere to go and no one to run to, they are homeless children in a big city and face dangers at every turn. After befriending a loving, stray dog, the girls look for shelter. They have the good fortune of bumping into Arul and Muthu, two young boys in circumstances similar to theirs, but who have more knowledge about the workings of the big city.

The four children and the dog quickly unite to become their own family. They work together, often scouring for recyclables in the city’s massive trash heaps. Loyal to one another, they pool their resources together and share all their earnings, food, and supplies. I appreciated how Venkatraman highlights the children’s pride in earning their keep – they don’t want charitable handouts from anyone.

The Bridge Home is ultimately an urban survival story for a middle grade audience. Venkatraman masterfully portrays the atrocities of the children’s lifestyle while also making it appropriate for younger readers. Though fictional, elements of the novel are based on true stories, and this book could be used to initiate discussion about how many children around the world live incredibly difficult lives. I think The Bridge Home is probably best for ages 10-14, due to the difficult life circumstances of the children, but mature eight- and nine-year-olds may handle it all right.