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An Interview with Mariana Llanos Author of Run, Little Chaski!

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARIANA LLANOS

AUTHOR OF

RUN, LITTLE CHASKI!:

AN INKA TRAIL ADVENTURE

ILLUSTRATED BY

MARIANA RUIZ JOHNSON

(Barefoot Books; $16.99, Ages 3 to 7)

 

 

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SUMMARY:

In this tale set in the ancient Inka (sometimes spelled Inca) empire, Little Chaski has a big job: he is the Inka King’s newest royal messenger. On his first day delivering messages he stops to help several creatures in need along the way, causing him to nearly miss his sunset deadline. But the kindness he bestowed on these animals winds up helping him in surprising ways. Descriptive language and bold illustrations give readers insight into Little Chaski’s nervousness and excitement as he runs the Inka Trail, working earnestly to fulfill the responsibilities of his new role.

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Hello, Mariana! There is so much I want to talk to you about, but let’s start with your most recent book. Run, Little Chaski: An Inka Trail Adventure, which I had the pleasure of seeing when it was just a manuscript! Congratulations on the two starred reviews and the Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection! Can you explain to our readers what a chaski is?

Mariana Llanos: Hi Colleen! I’m excited to be talking about it with you! You’ve seen this story from its first drafts. The word chaski means messenger in Quechua. Chaskis were a relay system of messengers used during the Inka Empire. They delivered official messages through the vast territory of the Tawantinsuyu. When the Spanish invaded, they were so impressed by the organization of this system, they even kept it running for some more years.

 

black and white chaski sketch

 

CP: Did you first hear about chaskis as a child growing up in Perú, or did you learn about them later in life?

ML: I learned about chaskis in Perú. They’re an important part of Peruvian history and culture so I learned about their system in school. The word chaski is also used as a name for different tourism-based businesses so I was familiar, although I did research more in-depth when writing this book. I read several non-fiction books to make sure I was getting everything right. I discovered there was a lot more to learn about the Inka, since the studies of their culture keep on advancing and more theories develop. Writing a book rooted in your own culture is a huge responsibility to bear on one’s shoulders. I really wanted to get it right.

 

 

Int art2 Run Little Chaski
Interior spread from Run, Little Chaski!: An Inka Trail Adventure written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson, Barefoot Books ©2021.

 

 

CP: You manage to pack so much information into the backmatter of this book. You talk about the Inka empire, animals of the Andes, chaskis, and more–and it’s all told in a way that the youngest readers will understand. Did you know from the start the book would have an informational aspect to it or did that develop over time?

ML: It evolved. In the beginning I had an author’s note with some information about the Inka and the Chaskis, but then my editor, Kate DePalma, thought it would be best to break down the information. I really like it now because it’s easier to see and process, especially for young readers. The team at Barefoot Books took what I had already written in the author’s note and added more sections. Later, I went over it and made corrections, and added additional information.

 

 

Int art from Run Little Chaski
Interior illustration from Run, Little Chaski!: An Inka Trail Adventure written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson, Barefoot Books ©2021.

 

CP: In 2017 you received an Oklahoma Human Rights Awards from the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance, and the United Nations Association Oklahoma City Chapter. That must have been such an honor. How does writing for children help you to address human rights?

ML: It was an honor that I take very seriously. I feel like writing for children allows me to plant a seed of peace. It allows me to offer a mirror and a window. All children have a right to live in peace and they should have the right to see themselves reflected in books. Books allow kids to imagine a world that is inclusive for all, they allow them to dream of a fair and just society. Through books we can also tackle big important issues like climate change, sustainability, so that’s the direction I’m heading with my stories. Writing for children is a tremendous responsibility.

 

 

Mariana Llanos with award
Author Mariana Llanos receives her award.

 

 

CP: Your book Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca tackles immigration and deportation—very tough topics—but it’s also about resilience and family. What was the process of writing that book like? How did you find a way to add hope to such a difficult story?

ML: There was a lot of crying involved. It’s such a tough topic, but it was a story I wanted to tell. In the story, Luca’s parents are deported as they’re undocumented, while he is an American citizen but has to travel to Mexico with his parents. It is reversed from the immigration stories we usually hear, but I knew from the news that there are thousands of children in this situation. I know I couldn’t give this story a traditional satisfying ending, but I knew I had to at least weave some hope into it. As an immigrant myself I know how terrifying the thought of being deported is, but I also tried to put myself in Luca’s shoes. To me, as long as I have laughter, music, and family I’d know that eventually, I would be okay. It was important to offer my readers an opportunity to empathize with a person in this situation. We often hear a lot of judgment against people who are undocumented, but what would YOU think if you were part of a mixed-status family, like so many in the United States?

 

cover LucasBridge Mariana Llanos

 

 

CP: You did such a wonderful job of putting the reader in Luca’s shoes. And the illustrations by Anna López Real add such a beautiful, dreamy quality to the story. What did you think when you first saw them?

ML: Colleen, there was even more crying! They are so evocative and powerful. Anna is such a talented person and couldn’t be happier to have shared Luca with her. It was a similar feeling when I saw Run Little Chaski’s illustrations. I had no idea they could make the story so much fun. I am in constant awe of the talent of the illustrators I’ve been paired with.

 

int art from Lucas Bridge
Interior spread from Luca’s Bridge written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Anna López Real, Penny Candy Books ©2019.

 

 

CP:  In addition to writing (and raising a family and working!), you do a lot of school visits. How do you fit it all in!? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks you can share with us?

ML: I schedule everything in my phone calendar. If I don’t immediately add it to the calendar, then forget it, it won’t happen. It took me a long time to learn to organize myself, but I think I have managed to learn to block my time. My mornings are for my writing and school visits. Afternoons for other work and kids. Family always comes first though, so I don’t feel bad if I have to cancel anything when my family needs me.

 

CP: In addition to being a traditionally published author, you have also self-published some books. What’s the biggest bonus to each of the different types of publishing?

ML: I have really enjoyed my journey in self-publishing. The biggest bonus is that I tell the stories I want to tell however I want to tell them. Self-publishing allows me to be creative without having to stick to industry standards for format, word count, long waits, even language. On the other hand, it is very hard to get noticed and for picture books, it gets expensive—I’m not an illustrator. But self-publishing is a great way to get our stories out, and I would consider it again to publish in Spanish as traditional publishing still doesn’t publish many authentic books in Spanish written by Spanish-speaking authors from the U.S. Most of what’s published in Spanish in the U.S, are translations, which is fine (there are very good translations of great books), but I think it’s a big bonus when the author writes in their own native language too.

 

CP: This past year, you started teaching writing classes in Spanish. Can you tell us a little about your classes?

ML: Yes, I began giving workshops about publishing. My goal is to reach Spanish-speaking people who want to begin publishing their stories. Most are bilingual, but like me, feel more comfortable speaking in their language, so this class is directed to them. One of my classes is an overview of the publishing industry. How to go from writing to publishing and the different paths to publish our stories. The class that I’m putting together now is called “El abc de los cuentos” and it will be about craft.

 

CP: That sounds terrific! In addition to teaching and school visits, what’s next for you?

ML: Currently, my awesome agent, Sera Rivers, is submitting my manuscripts. We have two chapter book series out on sub and a couple of PBs. Hopefully, I’ll get good news in the next few weeks. Everything in publishing moves slowly, but I keep myself from biting my nails by writing more and more stories.

 

CP: That’s an excellent strategy. I use it myself! Thanks for chatting Mariana. And good luck with your submissions!

ML: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen. My fingers and toes are crossed for my manuscripts and yours too. Thanks, everyone, for reading.

Headshot Mariana LlanosBRIEF BIO:

Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian-born writer of children’s books and poetry. She was raised in Lima, Peru, and moved to the United States in 2002. In 2013 she self-published her first book, Tristan Wolf. Nine books later, Mariana debuted as a traditionally published author in 2019 with Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca (Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Anna Lopez Real). This book was selected as a 2020 ASLC Notable Book. Her next book Eunice and Kate (2020, Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Elena Napoli) won the Paterson prize Books for Young People 2021. Her latest book Run Little Chaski (2021, Barefoot Books, illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson) is a JLG Gold Standard Selection and received starred reviews from Kirkus and SLJ.

Mariana lives in Oklahoma with her family.

 

BUY MARIANA’S BOOKS HERE:

English: https://bookshop.org/books/run-little-chaski-an-inka-trail-adventure/9781646861644

Spanish: https://bookshop.org/books/run-little-chaski-an-inka-trail-adventure/9781646862177?aid=1797&listref=las-musas-translated-spanish-more

 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Website: https://www.marianallanos.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/marianallanos

Instagram: https://instagram.com/marianawritestheworld

Facebook: https://facebook.com/marianallanosbooks

 

MORE ON MARIANA LLANOS:

Creators Corner Luca´s Bridge: Creator Corner with Mariana Llanos LUCA’S BRIDGE, EL PUENTE DE LUCA

Poems in Poetry Magazine:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mariana-llanos

NBCLX Interview about co-founding #LatinxPitch – https://www.lx.com/social-justice/these-authors-want-latinx-kids-to-be-represented-in-childrens-books/43082/

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021, from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).

 

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Five Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month 2021

 

FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

BlackHistoryMonthgraphic clipart

This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.

 

 

TheABCsofBlackHistory cvrTHE ABCs OF BLACK HISTORY
Written by Rio Cortez
Illustrated by Lauren Semmer
(Workman Publishing; $14.95, Ages 5 and up)

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Starred Review – Kirkus

The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.

Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlemthose big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding  to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.

The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable!
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

WE WAIT FOR THE SUN
Written by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe

Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa  
(Roaring Brook Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly

Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best. 

In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.

Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.” 

Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its  “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings. 

And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.

Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library.  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Opening the Road coverOPENING THE ROAD:
Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book
Written by Keila V. Dawson
Illustrated by Alleanna Harris
(Beaming Books; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.

Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.

In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.

Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.

Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.

Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click here for an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

black cowboys cover origBLACK HEROES OF THE WILD WEST
Written and illustrated by James Otis Smith
with an introduction by Kadir Nelson
(Toon Books; HC $16.95, PB $9.99, Ages 8+)

Junior Library Guild Selection
Starred Review – Booklist

Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild West points out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.

All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.

I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.

Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.

Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Gilded Ones coverTHE GILDED ONES
by Namina Forna
(Delacorte Press; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Booklist
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.

When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.

Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.

Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

 

Click here to read another Black History Month review.
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Additional Recommendations:

Ruby Bridges This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges (Delacorte Press)
The Teachers March! by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace w/art by Charly Palmer (Calkins Creek)
Stompin’ at the Savoy by Moira Rose Donohue w/art by Laura Freeman (Sleeping Bear Press)
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome w/art by James Ransome (Holiday House)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford w/art by Frank Morrison (Atheneum BYR)
Finding a Way Home by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek)
Changing the Equation: 50+ Black Women in STEM by Tonya Bolden (Abrams BYR)

 

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Our Country’s Presidents – Best Books for Presidents’ Day

OUR COUNTRY’S PRESIDENTS (2020 Edition):

A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency

Written by Ann Bausum

(NatGeoKids; $24.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Our Countrys Presidents cover


PRESIDENTS’ DAY 2021

 

This excellent sixth edition of Ann Bausum’s comprehensive coverage of our nation’s presidents aptly titled Our Country’s Presidents makes this the go-to book for at home or in school. It also includes the 2020 election so readers will be up-to-date if using the book as reference material. While Joseph R. Biden was recently elected 46th President of the United States, this book spans all the way back to the nascent days of the U.S. presidency with fascinating facts, all meticulously researched and presented in 224 color pages.

 

Our Countrys Presidents 58-59
Interior spread from Our Country’s Presidents (2020 Edition): A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency written by Ann Bausum, NatGeoKids ©2021

 

Our Country’s Presidents can be read in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons and can be enjoyed by children as well as adults. I appreciate how at the start readers are provided with a full page describing how to use the book. This follows a Foreward by author and 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson and an Introduction. Then the book is broken down into six historical time periods from 1789 to the present making it easy to jump around depending on the era or president in question. There is an illustrated timeline at the start of each section to help frame all of the events that impacted the period, from “wars to inventions, explorations to protests.” 

 

Our Countrys Presidents 78-79
Interior spread from Our Country’s Presidents (2020 Edition): A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency written by Ann Bausum, NatGeoKids ©2021

 

Additionally, those keeping up with current events can learn about the electoral college, the role of the vice presidency, the two-party system, plus first ladies, the White House construction and things you didn’t even realize you wanted to know! ” I decided to look up different presidents I knew little about and found interesting facts: Did you know that Martin Van Buren, our country’s 8th president, was the first one to be born a U.S. citizen? Previous presidents had been born during colonial America making them British subjects at birth. Or that Andrew Johnson, our 17th president, went on to become a U.S. senator? He was the only one to do so after his presidency.

Key features include:
  • Information about the 2021 president-elect and the 2020 election results as of the publication date
  • A brand-new thematic spread on the impeachment process and its history
  • Revised terminology around the language of slavery and analysis of early presidents who benefitted from and relied on enslaved labor
  • Comprehensive profiles of all the former presidents along with timelines and descriptions of crucial events during their terms
  • Thematic spreads covering a variety of topics from the history of voting rights to how to write a letter to the president
  • Full-page portraits, famous quotes, and fascinating facts to help kids get to know each leader

 

Our Countrys Presidents 162-163
Interior spread from Our Country’s Presidents (2020 Edition): A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency written by Ann Bausum, NatGeoKids ©2021

 

I have always been a fan of National Geographic nonfiction books for kids and this one is no exception. You may have to wait your turn to read it because I bet your tween will be hooked. It’s entertaining, educational, timely and is packed with 400 illustrations, famous quotes, presidential portraits and nicknames and so much more. Our Country’s Presidents provides the chance to find out about a plethora of presidential “scandals and shining moments” you won’t soon forget.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
    e

Click here to read a review of another middle grade book for Presidents’ Day

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Five New Children’s Books for Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020
RECOMMENDED READS FOR KIDS
-A ROUNDUP-

 

Clip Art Independence Day

 

The selection of books here, while not necessarily being about July 4th or the Revolutionary War, all have to do with our country, and what it means to have gained our independence and become a democracy. I hope the books inspire children to read more on the topics covered, and to think about how they can make a difference, no matter how small, in their own communities.

 

Free for You and Me cvrFREE FOR YOU AND ME:
What Our First Amendment Means
Written by Christy Mihaly
Illustrated by Manu Montoya
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

When at last America declared itself free from British rule, the Constitution was written “with rules for every institution.” However, something more was needed to guarantee five “of the most fundamental American freedoms,” and so the First Amendment, along with nine others (and making up the Bill of Rights) was drafted.

Using verse, occasional speech bubbles, and bright, diverse, kid-centric illustrations, Free for You and Me explains in easily understandable language just what these powerful 45 words represent. Kids will enjoy seeing other kids on the pages debating the meaning of the expression, “It’s a free country” making this picture book ideal for classroom discussion or for any budding historians and legal scholars.

Mihaly explains how our First Amendment means “we the people of the United States have five important freedoms,” many of which we see at work on a daily basis. Americans are guaranteed “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to gather in a peaceful rally or protest, and the freedom to tell our leaders what we want them to do.” If your child has recently marched with you in a protest, that’s due to our First Amendment rights.

In this book, kids learn the importance of the First Amendment through the example of a mayor who wants to shut down their playground. They organize a rally and get signatures on a petition in an effort to save it. Other good examples are presented as in the case of Freedom of Speech. Readers find out about Congressman Matthew Lyon who was arrested and spent four months in jail in 1798 for criticizing President John Adams. This would never have happened were it not for a law Adams and his Federalist government passed called the Sedition Act. Once Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired. I had never heard about this before, but my 19-year-old son had so a lively conversation ensued.

The timeliness of this educational picture book will not be lost on those who support a free press, the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully, as well as the freedom of religion and freedom to petition the Government for redress of grievances. Mihaly, a former lawyer, understands the principles upon which our democracy was established. With her knowledge of the First Amendment, she succeeds in conveying the freedoms it entails in an engaging and accessible way for young readers. We can never take these hard-fought for liberties for granted. Four pages of back matter go into more detail.  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

VOTE FOR OUR FUTURE!
Written by Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

The students of Stanton Elementary School aren’t old enough to vote when their school closes every two years on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. That’s when it turns into a polling station. They are, however, are old enough to spread the word in Vote for Our Future!

The diverse cast of characters, energetically represented in bold and vivid illustrations, introduce a topic that is timely for all ages. McNamara’s sweet and intuitive children first ask “what’s a polling station?” The children’s eyes widen as they learn that “the reason people vote is to choose who makes the laws of the country.” LaToya with her big pink glasses raises her hand and says, “we should all vote to make the future better.” But Lizzy reminds her that they just aren’t old enough.

So what are they old enough to do? Player illustrates boys and girls from all backgrounds looking through books and “searching online to find all kinds of information. They even took a trip to their local election office and picked up forms.” The research shows that “kids have to live with adult choices. The kids of Stanton Elementary School were ready to spread the word.”

McNamara takes the reader through the small town where Cady and her mom make flyers. They pass them out to a busy dad, who didn’t even know there was an election, to Nadiya and her auntie, wearing hijabs on their heads, who go door to door telling neighbors that “voting is a right.” Player’s vibrant and colorful art of people from various ethnic groups shows the reader that all people have the right to vote.

With each excuse from adults that the children are given, an even better comeback is heard in return. “I don’t like standing in lines,” one lady tells Nadiya. Nadiya’s auntie doesn’t like standing in lines either, but Nadiya says if you can stand in line for coffee you can stand in line to vote. I love how fearless the kids are when the adults come up with excuses for why they aren’t voting and how the kids don’t take no for an answer.

Player shows “people voting for the first time, and the fiftieth time, with their sons and daughters, their nieces and nephews, their brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends.” When voting was complete and the ballots were counted, Stanton Elementary went back to being a school and “the future began to change.”

McNamara writes in the back matter titled Get Out The Vote! that when adults vote for people and causes they believe in, they speak for us and make laws that are good for everyone in the country. She lists various Acts that have been signed to prompt further discussions between adults and kids. Player’s drawings of stickers such as Yes, I Voted help to get the message across that voting does matter and that every vote really can make a difference. Have the primaries happened in your state? If not, get out and vote! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

For Spacious Skies coverFOR SPACIOUS SKIES:
Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration
for “America the Beautiful”
Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Olga Baumert
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

I loved getting to know the origin story for the beloved song so many people think is our national anthem, but isn’t. I also learned that not only was the poem that was later turned into a song, written by a woman, but a very independent one at that.

Katharine Lee Bates was raised by her widowed mother who “grew and sold vegetables to help Katharine go to school.” Katharine’s smarts led to higher education and her passion for the written word led to her career as an author and professor at a time when young women were encouraged to pursue marriage and homemaking. She was also a reformer. In addition to teaching, Katharine worked hard to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in society, while also using her talents to help the suffrage movement.

A summer teaching job took her across the country by train from Boston to Colorado where she first glimpsed America’s boundless beauty. On July 4, 1893 Katharine’s mind was flooded with “memories of the ocean” as she set eyes on amber stalks of wheat swaying in the Kansas fields. A trip up to Pike’s Peak and its majestic views clearly inspired her to compose the poem we know and love. It was first published on July 4, 1895 and, with each additional publication, underwent several revisions. In 1910 it was paired with the famous melody by composer Samuel A. Ward we still sing today. This terrific and inspiring biography with its glorious Grandma Moses-esque illustrations perfectly blends the story of Katharine Lee Bates’s life and career, and country with the poem that celebrates its expansive splendor. Back matter and a timeline round out this recommended read.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

We the People coverWE THE PEOPLE:
The United States Constitution
Explored and Explained
Written by Aura Lewis and Evan Sargent
Illustrated by Aura Lewis
(Wide Eyed Editions; $24.99, Ages 10-14)

Even adults can take advantage of this comprehensive look at our Constitution because of the colorful and inviting picture book format designed with middle grade readers in mind. Plus it’s the kind of book you’ll want to keep on hand to refer to, especially when kids ask questions you may be unable to answer.

This quote from the authors on the intro page speaks volumes about what you can expect when you pick up a copy of We the People: “… we believe that having a deeper understanding of our Constitution can inspire change. Anyone can understand how the government works, and every single person has the power to get involved and make a difference.”

The 128 pages of the book are divided up into brief, digestible chapters, with plenty of white space so that your eye can travel to the most important parts quickly. The authors have included excerpts from the Constitution which have been paraphrased in kid-friendly English so they’re easily understood especially when presented as they relate to our daily lives.

One of my favorite sections was about the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, intended to guarantee that “no one can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.” The chapter features a bottom border illustration of both the suffragettes on the left holding signs and modern day protestors on the right also carrying signs. The spread (like those throughout the book) has interesting factoids such as the one about young conservative Tennessee politician, Harry Burns, whose mother influenced his decision “that tipped the scales in favor of the 19th Amendment.” On the four pages devoted to this amendment there are also thought provoking questions that a teacher or librarian can pose to their students.

There is so much wonderful information to absorb that I recommend readers take in a few chapters at a time to let the facts sink in. One particular chapter that, leading up to this year’s presidential election, might prompt discussion is about the 12th Amendment and the electoral college. Everyone who reads We the People will likely find something covered that will resonate with them whether it’s about the rights of the accused, term limits, or D.C.’s residents (now looking for statehood) being given the right to vote for president. Get this book today and you’ll get the picture!
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

STAR-SPANGLED:
The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and
the American Anthem
Written by Tim Grove
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 10-14)

Starred Review – Kirkus

Okay, I’m going to embarrass myself here and admit I did not know the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, was about a battle against the British over a fort in Baltimore. I mean I knew it was about a battle based on the lyrics and I knew the battle fought was with the British, and that’s it. I’m not even sure I was taught the anthem’s history in school. Now, thanks to Tim Grove’s well-researched historical nonfiction novel, I’ve been educated and kids can be, too. Oh and by the way, this occurred during the War of 1812 (which incidentally lasted until 1815).

Told from various perspectives, because what better way to convey the complexity of history than from more than one angle, Grove’s book introduces readers to a host of British and American characters. We meet Mary Pickersgill, (a sewing business owner specializing in flags or colors), Thomas Kemp (a Baltimore shipyard owner), Francis Scott Key, (a thirty-five-year-old lawyer with six children), Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (a top British military officer in the Chesapeake Bay region), and 10 others whose stories are woven together to bring the full picture of the intense battle to light. Star-Spangled also addresses the background of the war and events leading up to battle to help put its significance in context. If America lost Baltimore, our young country’s independence could be at stake. Grove notes that Pickersgill, Kemp, and Key were all slave owners and that Key, was a “tireless opponent of the slave trade” yet in his role as a U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., opposed abolitionists. He was also “a leading proponent” of the colonization movement, something I definitely did not know about.

As we meet each person, we learn the role they played in the the book’s subheading, The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. In fact, Star-Spangled reads like an Erik Larson novel where all the events are building up to the major one so anticipation is high despite knowing the outcome. And don’t be surprised if you become so engrossed that you finish the book in one go!

I had an advance review copy so I was unable to see the full-color photographs from the final edition, but my copy did contain the fascinating archival material interspersed throughout the book. There’s actually a photo of the “flag that Key saw. Over the years, before the flag came to the Smithsonian Institution, people cut various pieces off for souvenirs.” There’s also a photo of Francis Key’s “original draft of his poem.” This contains four verses and is preserved at the Maryland Historical Society.

Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Don’t miss your chance to get a copy of this enlightening book. I hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in classrooms and libraries around the country so our rich history can be better understood and discussed. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Kids Picture Book Review – Judah Touro Didn’t Want to be Famous

JUDAH TOURO DIDN’T WANT TO BE FAMOUS

Written by Audrey Ades

Illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger

(Kar-Ben Publishing; $17.99 HC,$7.99 PB, Ages 5-9)

 

Judah Touro Cover

 

In 1801, Judah Touro dreamed of finding success in New Orleans as he set sail from Boston Harbor. His story is vividly recounted in Judah Touro Didn’t Want to be Famous, written by debut author Audrey Ades and illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger.

After spending five miserable months at sea, Judah arrives in New Orleans. “His father and grandfather had also sailed the seas. They left their homes to practice Judaism in peace and freedom. God had taken care of them. Judah knew God had a plan for him, too.”

Mildenberger’s illustrations, using soft brown and blue colors, depict the busy harbor in Touro’s new hometown. “A busy harbor meant trade. And trade was a business Judah knew well.” Ades takes us through Judah’s transforming life as he welcomes new friends into his shop at Number 27 Chartres Street. Mildenberger draws crowds of people waiting in line as the industrious shop owner’s business booms. He becomes the most successful merchant in town unlike his father and grandfather who had been great Rabbis. “Had God planned for him to be a businessman?”

The United States entered the War of 1812 eleven years after Judah had relocated to New Orleans. When General Andrew Jackson urgently requested volunteers, Judah joined up, doing one of “the most dangerous jobs on the battlefield, bringing ammunition to soldiers.” During the war Judah was injured and his dearest friend, Rezin Shepherd, found him and nurtured him back to health. “While he lay in bed, he had plenty of time to think about why God had spared his life.”

 

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Interior spread from Judah Touro Didn’t Want to be Famous written by Audrey Ades and illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger, Kar-Ben Publishing ©2020.

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Eagerly turning the page, we see Mildenberger’s moving full color illustrations of sad faces and homeless people as Judah walks through town. “His gut ached for the children who begged for food when they should have been in school. And he sobbed for families torn apart by diseases like yellow fever and cholera.” The poverty and suffering profoundly impacts Judah, supported by his cane, walking past the hospital. He knows he can afford to help these people and so he does. Judah begins making huge donations, but he “requested only one thing in return. He asked that his donations be kept secret. Judah Touro didn’t want to be famous.”

This engaging, educational story takes us through Judah’s purchase of the city’s first Jewish synagogue. We then see how “everyday, African men, women and children were legally sold as slaves so quietly, Judah began to pay off masters.” Ades explains to readers how, when Judah died in 1854, he left money for myriad charities and causes, both Jewish and non-Jewish. “He made sure that fire departments, public parks, libraries and schools could remain open and running.” In his lifetime, “Judah gave away more money than any other American of his time. But he was not famous. And that’s the way he wanted it.”

In the Author’s Note, Ades explains how Touro did not leave a diary. However his secretive, selfless and generous actions make clear that during his formative years he had learned a great Jewish value, helping those in need. This fascinating historical fictionalized story is a great lesson on kindness and humility for lower grade students. They’ll learn that success is more than having money; it is about what you do with that money, and that philanthropic deeds, large and small can be done without requiring recognition. In our world of social media and instant gratification, it was inspirational to read about a real life hero who did great deeds, but chose to avoid fame.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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YA Book Review – The Blossom and the Firefly

THE BLOSSOM AND THE FIREFLY

Written by Sherri L. Smith

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99 HC,
available in Ebook, Audio, Ages 12+)

 

 

The Blossom and the Firefly cvr

 

Starred Reviews – Horn Book, School Library Journal

Sherri L. Smith’s YA book,The Blossom and the Firefly, depicts an interesting slice of Japanese World War II history. Hana, assigned fieldwork is, one day, buried alive during an air attack. After she is dug out, Hana feels a part of her died in that bombing. Adding to her despair, she is reassigned as a Nadeshiko Tai girl—a handmaiden to the dead—serving tokkō, the special attack pilots also known as kamikaze. When each group readies to leaves, she must smile and wave as they take their last flight hoping to honorably body-crash into enemy battleships.

I appreciate the unique story structure, based on the Eastern style of storytelling called kishōtenketsu. Instead of a plot with conflict, kishōtenketsu revolves around contrast or juxtaposition. In The Blossom and the Firefly, Hana’s first-person chapters are in the “now,” while Taro’s (her love interest) third-person chapters begin in 1928 during his childhood. About halfway in, the narratives synchronize. Utilizing these time lines, we are shown Taro’s backstory without relying on flashbacks.

The story questions whether it’s possible to live and love during wartime. Hana keeps coolly distant until stumbling upon a special connection with Taro. After the war ends, rebuilding entails mending emotionally and moving forward to embrace what’s left. Readers will feel what it was like to be a teen caught in a war-torn land, where it’s not whether you have lost a loved one, but, rather, how many. This young adult novel about a little known aspect of the war is both heartbreaking and uplifting.

• Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Kids Picture Book Review – Sweet Tamales for Purim

SWEET TAMALES FOR PURIM

Written by Barbara Bietz

Illustrated by John Kanzler

(August House Little Folk; $8.95; Ages 4-8)

 

Sweet Tamales book cover

 

 

Purim is just around the corner! To celebrate this joyful Jewish festival in the 19th century, people of various backgrounds traveled by horse and buggy, and some by train, in Sweet Tamales for Purim, written by the award-winning team of writer Barbara Bietz and illustrator John Kanzler. This delightful and diverse picture book tells the story of a community coming together to combine cultural and religious traditions in a small southwestern town. 

Kanzler’s illustrations of the bright blue sky and drawings of characters dressed in clothes from the 1800s introduce the reader to a time long ago reminding us that family traditions remain. The excitement on our main character Rebecca’s face is shown as she places Purim Party posters on the town walls, with her best friend Luis and her goat Kitzel, as old men from the town look on.

 

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Interior spread from Sweet Tamales for Purim written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by John Kanzler, August House ©2020.
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“We wear costumes on Purim,” Rebecca explains to Luis as her mother sews a crown of flowers for her head. Luis is not familiar with Purim “since his family celebrates different holidays from mine.” Bietz changes settings taking the reader through the story of the Evil Haman who plotted to harm the Jews in the city of Shushan. Through chalkboard drawings, Rebecca shows Luis Queen Esther’s Uncle Mordecai and Haman’s plot. Luis learns how the Jewish people were saved.

“When someone says Haman’s name during Purim, there’s lots of booing and shouting,” Rebecca explains to Luis. “Rebecca, can I bring my maracas?” Luis asked. “Maracas are perfect for Purim. Together, we’ll make lots of noise.”

After removing the delicious smelling sweet treat of hamantaschen from the oven, Luis and Rebecca go outside to play marbles. The story takes an unexpected turn when both Kitzel the goat and the hamantaschen go missing! (If you have a pet you probably figured this part out by now.) Purim was ruined, but Rebecca was determined to fix it. The reader anxiously turns the page to a new family tradition as Luis’s mama introduces us to her family’s tradition of Sweet Tamales. “Sweet Tamales for Purim!”

“When the husks were soft, Luis showed me how to spread the mixture on the corn husks and fill them with raisins and more sugar and cinnamon. His mama steamed the tamales in a giant pot.”

 

 

Sweet Tamales Spread 20-21
Interior spread from Sweet Tamales for Purim written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by John Kanzler, August House ©2020.

 

Bietz’s descriptive words and Kanzler’s real-life drawings welcome the reader into a time long ago. Adults and children alike see what happens when we all come together through kindness in both the past and the present. This beautifully told story about two children from different backgrounds is a great read about inclusion and reminds us how beautiful a town can be when people come together as one. Eating both hamantaschen and sweet tamales on Purim is a great idea! The Author’s Note explains the story of the late pioneers who settled in the Southwest where life was lonely and isolated. Bietz explains how her story was inspired by a true event that occurred in 1886 when the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society of Tucson, Arizona, planned a Purim Ball for the entire community. I learned something I did not know about Purim in the 1800s. I know this will be a great read for both Jewish and non-Jewish children.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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Presidents’ Day Picture Book – Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln

HONEY, THE DOG WHO SAVED ABE LINCOLN

Written by Shari Swanson

Illustrated by Chuck Groenink

(Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Honey the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln CVR

 

Junior Library Guild Selection

It’s hard to imagine that our 16th President, who faced one of the toughest challenges in American history, was at one time a curious, barefooted boy roaming the “hills and hollows” of his hometown, Knob Creek, Kentucky. In Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, author Shari Swanson and illustrator Chuck Groenink depict a gentle boy whose tenderhearted rescues of vulnerable animals shed light on Abe’s early and strong sense of justice.

To adults like Mr. John Hodgen, the miller, Abe seems irresponsible for “‘fool[ing] [his] time away,’” stopping to right the wrong he sees all around him. But to young Abe the “‘many little foolish things’” are the harm and injustices he must counter: a frog trapped inside a snake’s mouth, a possum stuck “‘in a hollow stump,’” and a honey-colored dog whimpering from a broken leg.

Abe shows kindness for rescuing the dog he befriends and names Honey. Loyal friends, the two become inseparable and share many adventures. One such adventure turns particularly perilous as Abe gets stuck between two boulders inside a cave. Honey returns home alone to get help and leads the search party to the cave. Assisting Abe’s rescue in this way, Honey pays Abe “‘back for mending his broken leg’” confirming the young boy’s belief that Honey will always do “‘good things’” for him.

 

Interior by Chuck Groenink from HONEY, THE DOG WHO SAVED ABE LINCOLN by Shari Swanson
Interior spread ©2020 Chuck Groenink from Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln written by Shari Swanson and illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Katherine Tegen Books ©2020.

 

Accompanying this comforting story is Groenink’s soft and muted color palette. Many illustrations place either Abe or the natural surroundings of the Kentucky woodlands at the center of the page, emphasizing the close relationship between the two. Equally, Swanson’s words engage us readers with the terrain. Mr. Hodgen uses “his cane-pole whistle” to call out to Abe in the cave. We see Abe’s resourcefulness and experience when he uses the “soft bark of a pawpaw bush to wrap around the sticks” that help set Honey’s leg. Undoubtedly, the surrounding wilderness deeply influences young Abe’s character.

A “Timeline of Abraham Lincoln and His Animal Encounters,” an author’s note, and a map of “the area around Hodgen’s Mill where Abe grew up” in the endpapers add fascinating (and funny) details to Abe’s early and later life. We learn further of his fights against animal cruelty and his bringing in many animals into the White House (goats included!). We also learn the author’s source of this story, a book written by J. Rogers Gore who wrote down the many tales Austin Gollaher, Abe’s childhood best friend, shared about his and Abe’s adventures.

Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln is a perfect book not only for little ones who love animals and adventures, but also for parents who can learn a thing or two about lending grace and understanding to a most curious child.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Find a fun activity kit and curriculum guide here.

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Kids Book Review for Presidents’ Day – The Superlative A. Lincoln by Eileen R. Meyer

THE SUPERLATIVE A. LINCOLN:
POEMS ABOUT OUR 16TH PRESIDENT
Written by Eileen R. Meyer
Illustrated by Dave Szalay
(Charlesbridge; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 

 

No matter how many children’s books I read about Abraham Lincoln, I continue to learn something new in each one. Sometimes something I already knew, but had long forgotten, is presented in such a way that I’ll now always remember it. Both these experiences apply to The Superlative A. Lincoln by Eileen R. Meyer with art by Dave Szalay.

Perfect for Lincoln’s Birthday (yesterday, 2/12), Presidents’ Day or National Poetry Month, Meyer’s nonfiction picture book contains 19 poems that vary in style and content. Each poem is also accompanied by a factual paragraph on the bottom of the page to put the poem’s subject in context. Best of all, teachers can use the superlative poem titles such as “Best Wrestler”, “Worst Room Name,” and “Strongest Conviction,” and couple them with the excellent activities offered on Meyer’s website, for an engaging Language Arts lesson.

 

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The Superlative A. Lincoln: Poems About our 16th President written by Eileen R. Meyer and illustrated by Dave Szalay, Charlesbridge ©2019.

 

Did you know our 16th president was an inventor? Thanks to Meyer, in “Most Likely to Tinker,” we read how Lincoln’s penchant for problem solving resulted in his being awarded a patent for a design that helped “boats float over shallow river spots …” I didn’t recall Lincoln being a doting dad, but in “Most Permissive Parent,” we get a glimpse via Szalay’s charming woodcut looking illustration of First Sons, Willie and Tad, taking full advantage of their father’s parenting style. Throughout the book, Szalay’s art humanizes Lincoln and events whether in scenes of him chopping trees or meeting Frederick Douglass with a firm and friendly handshake. There’s a warm, folk art quality about the illustrations that pairs them perfectly with all of Meyer’s telling poems.

 

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The Superlative A. Lincoln: Poems About our 16th President written by Eileen R. Meyer and illustrated by Dave Szalay, Charlesbridge ©2019.

 

One of my favorite poems, “Best Advice” addresses Lincoln’s signature beard. What a surprise it was to learn he was the first president to sport one! I had no idea that growing whiskers had been recommended in a letter to candidate Lincoln by eleven-year-old Grace Bell. Lincoln even met with her on his travels to offer thanks. In addition to his beard, most children probably associate Honest Abe with his stovepipe hat. It certainly came in handy as a writing surface and a convenient place to carry things. “Best Use of an Accessory” cleverly conveys the hat’s perspective. “We don’t need a leather briefcase. / We don’t want an attaché. / You can keep that canvas knapsack. / I’m a traveling valet.” And by the way, “Least Favorite Nickname” enlightens young readers about Lincoln’s dislike of the nickname Abe. They would be hard pressed to find anyplace where he personally used it, preferring to sign his name Abraham Lincoln or A. Lincoln as in the book’s title.

 

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The Superlative A. Lincoln: Poems About our 16th President written by Eileen R. Meyer and illustrated by Dave Szalay, Charlesbridge ©2019.

 

The back matter in The Superlative A. Lincoln includes an author’s note, a comprehensive timeline as well as book and website resources and a bibliography.  I could easily describe every poem in the book because I thoroughly enjoyed them all, but I’ll leave that pleasure for you. Instead I’ve chosen to end my review with one of many popular A. Lincoln quotes:

“I want it said of me by those who knew me best,
that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower
where I thought a flower would grow.”

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Picture Book Review for MLK Day – A Place to Land

A PLACE TO LAND:

Martin Luther King Jr.

and the Speech That Inspired a Nation

Written by Barry Wittenstein

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

(Neal Porter Books/Holiday House; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

A Place to Land book cover

 

A 2019 Booklist Editors’ Choice
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

INTRO

Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”, will never cease to give me chills or bring tears to my eyes so I’m grateful for the meticulously researched backstory behind the composition thoughtfully presented in A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney.

While elementary-school-aged children may be familiar with King’s speech, they may not know how long it took to write, that it was delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, or that one of the most quoted parts of it was shared extemporaneously at the prompting of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. In this enlightening picture book, readers are privy to fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments that demonstrate King’s writing process and how his background as a preacher played a part in its creation.

 

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Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

REVIEW:

Over the years I’ve reviewed myriad wonderful MLK Jr. books and A Place to Land, like those others, has focused on an impactful point in King’s life and magnified it so we may understand it better. Wittenstein’s lyrical writing shines and flows like a King speech, pulling us in with each new line. I found myself repeating many of the sentences aloud, marveling at what he chose to keep on the page and wondering how much he had to leave out. The revealing information Wittenstein details will inspire readers to reexamine well-known orations throughout history, looking at their content through a new lens.

 

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Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

 

The story in A Place to Land unfolds in three significant locations, the Willard Hotel in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial, and at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama just prior to, during, and some years after King’s speech. Historical figures are woven into most of Pinkney’s spreads. Readers will be prompted to learn more about every individual noted and the comprehensive back matter provides the resources to do so.

I hadn’t known that the “I Have a Dream” speech was written at the Willard nor did I know how many influential colleagues contributed during the meeting of the minds prior to King’s drafting of the speech. “So Martin did what great men do. He asked for guidance.” I also hadn’t realized that MLK Jr. practically pulled an all-nighter writing it after the lengthy and honest discussions. How he managed to make such a powerful presentation after barely any sleep is beyond me, but clearly, his adrenaline kicked in and his natural oratory skills took command at that lectern.

As a former speechwriter, my favorite part of A Place to Land was reading about King’s exhaustive efforts to craft the speech late into the night while trying to integrate all the input he’d been given earlier in the meeting. In his message, he wanted to convey the goals of his non-violent civil rights movement and continue to push for racial equality and the end of discrimination. He was also determined to honor those who came before him and those who would carry on his dreams. “… and so many others, their faces forever seared into his memory.”

King found himself “Writing. Rewriting. Rephrasing, …” and then practicing his delivery before succumbing to sleep. I felt as though I were in the room with him, knowing as he did that there was an important element currently eluding him that was still to come.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 3
Interior spread from A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books ©2019.

ART

Pinkney’s outstanding collage-style illustrations are so fitting for the subject matter. He seamlessly blends images of civil rights advocates with elements of the movement and the era. As I turned the pages, I couldn’t wait to see what people would appear and against what backdrop. It’s hard to imagine any other art marrying so well with Wittenstein’s or MLK Jr.’s words. I resoundingly recommend A Place to Landby Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney for parents, teachers, and librarians. It’s a movingly written, motivating, educational, and timeless read that I will definitely revisit.

Visit the publisher’s website page here for bonus material.

Click here for a roundup of more recommended reads for MLK Day.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Kids Picture Book Review – Home in the Woods

HOME IN THE WOODS
Written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Home in the Woods cover

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus

“This book is inspired not only by the stories from [my grandmother],” says Wheeler, “but by the entire generation that experienced the Great Depression. They will soon be gone, and if we haven’t yet collected their stories, the time is now.”

 

Home in the Woods, the latest picture book by Eliza Wheeler is a treat for the eyes and soul. The embossed title on the book jacket is gorgeous as is the winter scape underneath. The water color and ink artwork is simply stunning.

Travel back in time as this compelling story, based on Wheeler’s grandmother’s life in the Wisconsin woods during the Great Depression, pulls readers right into each meticulously and movingly illustrated page.

Told from the perspective of Wheeler’s grandmother, Marvel, Home in the Woods introduces readers to the six-year-old and her seven siblings along with Mum, a newly widowed and stoic 34-year-old. This 40-page book unfolds over four seasons beginning in Summer when the time is ideal to move into an abandoned tar-paper shack they find in the woods. “You never know what treasures we’ll find,” says Mum. While Marvel doesn’t believe the rundown hut can ever be a treasure let alone a home, she carries on nonetheless relying on the closeness of her family and her mother’s optimism. That energy is conveyed in scenes like the one where seven of the siblings (the youngest, at 3- months-old, is at home with Mum) happily collect berries. Wheeler subtly shows how nature plays an important role in both the family’s struggle and survival.

 

Int1 HomeintheWoods Wheeler
Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

The blue tones of Summer shift when Autumn arrives and “rust and ruby leaves” provide a beautiful backdrop for this season’s art. Everyone in the family pitches in whether it’s splitting wood to heat the shack or pulling weeds and picking “veggies.” As baby Eva munches a carrot, Mum cooks preserves and the children prepare for winter by stocking up the cellar with whatever they were able to harvest.

On a visit to Bennett’s General Store, the siblings look longingly at the inviting shop window, but they have learned how to do without. They can only afford to “buy some basics.” Cleverly, the kids have invented a game they’ve dubbed General Store that keeps them entertained for hours. Beside the hut, Marvel displays “mud sweets,” little Lowell is the jeweler, older sister Bea sells fine hats (note the creativity of the hats Mum is admiring), and the others all find fulfilling counters to man.

When Winter’s bitter winds blow, the family huddles by the pot-belly stove as the two oldest boys “trek out to hunt for food.” Blue tones return, but the flames of the fire, the glowing lantern, the gold in the children’s crowns, and in the patchwork pieces as Mum teaches Bea to quilt all depict a warmth that is the fabric of this loving family. Marvel shares how her brother Rich teaches her to read in another touching illustration that is rich with contentment.

 

int2 HomeintheWoods Wheeler
Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

int3 HomeintheWoods Wheeler
Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

The illustration above clues readers into Mum’s silent fears for her family while the words, “But Mum stays awake into the night …” tell us what we’ve guessed all along. Living in the woods, barely eking out a living, and supporting her family of nine has taken its toll on this strong woman. Mum prays for her children to get safely through winter and the Depression.

 

int4 HomeintheWoods Wheeler
Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

The cycle of seasons culminates in Spring. “The cottonwoods are all in bloom” and a spirit of rebirth and renewal fills everyone’s hearts just as the family’s pail is filled with fresh milk at Erickson’s Farm. The children rejoice in the thrilling sound of birdsong and the blossoming of flowers. Enveloped by hope, the family has gotten through the harsh Wisconsin winter and emerged to find that the power of togetherness, teamwork and love has brought to them the promise of better days ahead and the true meaning of home.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

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Picture Book Review – A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park

A GREEN PLACE TO BE:
The Creation of Central Park

Written and illustrated by Ashley Benham Yazdani
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 7-10)

 

book cover illustration from A Green Place to Be by Ashley Beham Yazdani

 

Ashley Benham Yazdani’s A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park shines a light on a familiar subject in a new way. This historical nonfiction picture book gives a glimpse into 1858 New York City when the park’s design contest was held. Architect Calvert Vaux and park superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted teamed up to win.

Yazdani’s images capture the vast undertaking as Vaux and Olmsted draft the layout, called Greensward. I like the spread of the ten-foot-long drawing envisioning what could be done with the land. Though their design was entered after the deadline, they won but had to change the name to New York City’s Central Park.

Olmsted planned ahead—about 100 years ahead—using “the color and shape of each plant to create illusions in the landscape” so nature would be the focus for generations yet to come. “Amenities such as the Dairy were specifically built to help those living with less, and Olmsted’s and Vaux’s compassion for others is shown by their determination to create a park that welcomed all social classes.” The men were early environmentalists striving to conserve this patch of parkland in Manhattan.

Kids who like construction-type books will appreciate that boulders were blasted to bits. Nearly every piece of the swampy, sharp, and foul-smelling land was raised or lowered, rocks were relocated and reused. Thought was given on how to best move people through the park without disturbances from carriages.

The end matter sums up the lives of Olmsted and Vaux. A page of interactive questions with items kids can search for within the book adds an element of interactive fun. More detail is given on Seneca Village, the area of land which had to be cleared for the park. The freed African-Americans who lived there were first offered money, then forced out—a sad beginning to this story.

 

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For Women’s History Month – Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird Blog Tour

AWAY WITH WORDS:
The Daring Story of Isabella Bird
Written by Lori Mortensen
Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.95, Ages 6-10)

 

cover illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen

 

Before Nellie Bly or Amelia Earhardt there was Isabella Bird and, thanks to this eye-opening new picture book biography, Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, children can read about what impressive inroads this English explorer made at a time in history when a woman’s place was in the home not out globetrotting around the world, and writing about it to boot!

This “unlikely candidate for adventure,” who never felt well as a child, was born in the Yorkshire countryside in 1831. Isabella Bird suffered from a multitude of ailments and rarely left the house. That worked for awhile because, according to Victorian societal norms that she would eventually challenge, “Young ladies wore dresses. / Young ladies didn’t go to school. / Young ladies stayed home.” Countless doctors couldn’t diagnose her with anything until one doctor recommended she get some fresh air. Her father took Isabella out with him on his horse and, with his encouragement, she made discoveries that would forever change the course of her life. “Out in the wild, Isabella forgot about her aches and pains. / She breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her.”

Captured beautifully by Caldwell’s spread below, letters from relatives abroad and other news from overseas sparked a flame in Isabella. She felt deep inside that travel would feed her soul and she yearned for the possibilities it would provide but some days she could barely get up. The tide turned for the better when her doctor suggested a sea voyage and her parents agreed.

 

interior illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen
Interior spread from Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird written by Lori Mortensen and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing ©2019.

 

She boarded a mail steamer for Nova Scotia and from then on there was no looking back for this intrepid young woman. Her red leather notebook accompanied her wherever she went. I love how Mortensen weaves quotations of text from Bird’s own published books wherever it adds atmosphere to the story. Caldwell’s colorful illustrations pair perfectly with those lines. One of my favorites is, “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up and swarms of living creatures fell out of it …”

Her first book, The Englishwoman in America, was published in 1856, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. But when her father passed away Bird chose to end her explorations. That ultimately led to a flare up of her ailments and an onset of doldrums that, at her sister’s urging, could only be allayed by journeying across five continents. It took grit and guts and bravery to gallivant solo around the world to myriad destinations lacking in creature comforts, but Isabella persevered. Thanks to her detailed record keeping of all the places she visited, the nine additional books she wrote became bestsellers. People craved reading about the exotic locales and peoples that they’d never see in their lifetime whether that be climbing up Kilauea volcano in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), trekking across the dangerous frozen Persian “desert at the roof of the world,” or befriending a “notorious outlaw.”

 

int illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen
Interior spread from Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird written by Lori Mortensen and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing ©2019.

 

As Mortensen’s story vividly demonstrates, the world was indeed Isabella’s home so it’s no surprise that in 1892, Bird was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London and a year later was presented to Queen Victoria. In 32 pages of lyrical prose, Mortensen shows young readers the personal growth and happiness that can come from travel and exposure to a vast range of cultures. Caldwell’s artwork includes just the right amount of soaring spirit a name like Bird implies.

Picture book biographies, when done well, provide a much needed window on the world of important people from the past that we might ordinarily never hear or read about. Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, does that and more. It offers inspiration and a role model for children who, long after Women’s History Month has ended, will no doubt want to seek out Bird’s impressions by turning to her original books to learn more about this trailblazer’s 19th century daring journeys. The back matter including an author’s note, a timeline of Bird’s travels and publications, Bird’s text quotations, and a bibliography make this nonfiction book ideal for both home and school. In fact, I’d give it as a gift to a child along with a journal to get them started on documenting their own travels, even if that’s just an outing to the zoo or a trip to another city.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Visit other stops below on this enlightening blog tour from Peachtree Publishing:

3/5: Let’s Talk Picture Books

3/6: Pragmatic Mom

3/7: Geo Librarian

3/8: Kid Lit Frenzy

 

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For President’s Day Read About Abraham Lincoln Pro Wrestler by Steve Sheinkin

ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRO WRESTLER
TIME TWISTERS BOOK ONE
Written by Steve Sheinkin
Illustrated by Neil Swaab
(Roaring Brook Press; $13.99, Ages 7-10)

 

Abraham Lincoln Pro Wrestler Time Twisters Book One cover illustration

 

 

Don’t let the title, Abraham Lincoln Pro Wrestler, convince you that this totally entertaining and educational read is comprised of our 16th president traipsing around in a wrestling singlet. It is actually the first in a clever fiction chapter book series that features lots of laugh out load moments that kept me turning the pages to see how the two main characters, step-siblings Abby and Doc, would pull off some whimsical time travel twists that bring Abraham Lincoln’s presidency to life but could also change the course of history.

The story unfolds with the kids in Ms. Maybee’s history class being instructed to read aloud from their textbook section about Honest Abe. When the teacher tries to get her students involved, the general reaction is a resounding “BORING!” It turns out, though, that their disinterest has negatively impacted historical figures including Lincoln. Because of that, when Ms. Maybee’s class attempts to read about America’s influential president and his profound impact on our country’s history, the students can only find references to Abraham Lincoln essentially doing zilch—”sitting in a chair, reading or heading off to the outhouse.”

In an interesting scene that sets the stage for all the story’s zany action, Lincoln travels to the present to offer words of caution. “Saying I’m boring, groaning in agony when it comes time to read about history. As I said, today was just a warning. If you do it again—well, you’ll see.” The next attempt to study the 16th president also fails, but instead of Lincoln returning to the library storage room to warn Abby and Doc, Doc disappears into the same box (portal) that brought Lincoln to the present from 1860 Illinois. Abby follows and the two wind up outside of Lincoln’s house. There they meet Lincoln and his wife, Mary who tells them the election is tomorrow. With her husband no longer caring, Mary and the kids are worried. “Then we’re doomed! … The country will break apart! Everything we have worked for—all thrown away!” The kids feel awful, certain they’ve screwed with fate, especially after their dad, Mr. Douglass, also a teacher, impresses upon the two how important history is. “But knowing history makes you smarter, helps you understand the world better. Mostly, it’s just fun.”

The problem is Doc and Abby now need to get Abraham Lincoln engaged again while also getting their classmates to realize how much history matters. This may not be easy. When Lincoln hears about a school fundraiser, a pro wrestling match scheduled for that evening, he’d much rather quit the past and attend the big event. He just happens to be in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame! At the same time, Doc has time travelled back to election day with the gym teacher, Mr. Biddle, who earlier dressed as Honest Abe (a term he despised) for a special surprise presentation at school. His goal: get the real Lincoln concerned enough to step back into his rightful place and accept the presidency. I especially liked this part because of all the facts about Lincoln that Sheinkin shares and how the two Abes get up to all sorts of shenanigans along with Abby and Doc. There’s so much humor infused into this history lesson that readers will not even realize how much fun they’re having learning about a time when our country was so “bitterly divided, mainly over the issue of slavery.” Kids will breeze through the eighteen chapters and will be delighted to learn there are more books available already in this pleasing series. The cartoon-like illustrations by Swaab add to the silliness as well as offer an easy way into absorbing history for the more reluctant readers.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Click here for Reading Guide for Teachers

Start reading the story here.

 

 

 

 

Read more about Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words.

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