Uptown

Uptown, by Bryan Collier, is a glimpse into the life of a young Harlem boy. Readers experience the sights and sounds of his city and develop a strong sense of his neighborhood.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Collier’s collage art is a feast for the eyes. There is so much happening on each page – just like in the city.
  • Evocative phrases put the reader right down in the city. “Uptown is weekend shopping on 125th Street. The vibe is always jumping as people bounce to their own rhythms.”
  • As someone who has never lived in a large city, I enjoy touring Harlem with a guide who shares his love for his community on every page.

Uptown is a great read-aloud choice for ages 4-8.

The King of Kindergarten

As school gears up again, there’s no denying this year will be a challenge for everyone, since no one is quite sure what pandemic schooling will look like. I imagine it’s even more daunting for new kindergartners who may already be tentative about starting school for the first time. Though The King Of Kindergarten walks through a typical first day before Covid-19 precautions were put into place, I imagine many young readers will still find comfort in its pages, and every little bit helps!

Here our three things I like about this book:

  • Author Derrick Barnes’ prose is simple, yet elegant, giving readers a better understanding of our regal protagonist. By using a second person POV, kids will feel like they are the King of Kindergarten, starting school for the first time.
  • Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s illustrations are sophisticated and layered, yet the overall mood is child-like. I love the wide range of color.
  • The joyous tone will make kids excited to go to school. There are games to be played, lessons to be learned, and new friends to be made.

The King of Kindergarten is a wonderful addition to the collection of first-day-of-school picture books. It shows a welcome diversity of children and adults, all of which are happy to learn and eager to make friends with each other. I recommend this book for all soon-to-be kindergartners.

Beautiful Ballerina

As more attention is given to racial equality, many book enthusiasts have created lists highlighting works by black authors, illustrators, and poets. While it is important to read books about the shameful atrocities of our nation’s past, we cannot limit our reading experience of the black community to slavery and Jim Crow laws. Children should be able to find books that feature black children doing the things many children love to do.

Beautiful Ballerina is such a book, celebrating young black dancers. Poet Marilyn Nelson’s lovely, lyrical verse matches with Susan Kuklin’s expressive photographs of young dancers from Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Nelson’s words are as graceful as the ballerinas pictured. I love her repetition of “Beautiful ballerina, you are the dance.”
  • Kuklin expertly captures photographs of ballerinas in motion, which I have to believe is not easy to do, especially in children who may not have quite achieved the body control of adult dancers. The solid color backgrounds accentuates the dancers’ presence, beautiful poses, and long lines.
  • Although Misty Copeland’s success has opened doors for young black ballet dancers, there is still a lingering stigma black girls don’t fit the profile of the ideal ballerina. This book turns that ridiculous notion on its head.

Beautiful Ballerina is a celebration of grace, strength, and beauty and makes one marvel at how ballerinas do what they do. My own ballerina loved this book. I recommend this book for all readers, and it will especially inspire young female dancers (alas, there are no male dancers in this book) between ages four to ten.

The Field

The Field, written by Baptiste Paul and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, bursts with energy and neighborhood fun. The synopsis is straightforward: kids gather for a pick-up game of soccer. Although the premise seems simple, Paul and Alcántara pack in so much emotion and life so that it makes the reader feel they are a part of the game.

Here are three things I like about this book:

  • Paul draws on his childhood experience of growing up in the Caribbean. Creole words seamlessly mix into dialogue and narrative, giving the reader a sense that they are part of the neighborhood pack.
  • With so much color and action in her illustrations, Alcántara makes the reader feel like they are running, kicking, and getting dirty right alongside the others.
  • People sometimes think that picture books showing a slice of life are easy to pull off, but the opposite is true – if you want them done well. And Paul and Alcántara have done it so well in this book, which is a testament to their craft. They get bonus points for creating a book that feels inclusive and will make kids want to start a pick-up game of their own.

The Field is a wonderful choice for a read-aloud, particularly for soccer lovers in the four to eight years old age bracket.

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.