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Five Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month 2021

 

FIVE CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

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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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Six Diverse Books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021

A ROUNDUP OF SIX DIVERSE BOOKS

FROM PEACHTREE PUBLISHING

FOR

MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY 2021

 

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Reviews:

GoingDownHomeWithDaddy mainGOING DOWN HOME WITH DADDY
Written by Kelly Starling Lyons
Illustrated by Daniel Minter
(Peachtree Publishing; $16.95, Ages 4-8)

A 2020 CALDECOTT HONOR BOOK

My childhood friend’s mother was from the south and used to attend family reunions when we were kids. Going Down Home With Daddy is exactly how I imagined them to be. Lyons’s story, “inspired by her husband’s heritage and her own” beautifully captures the annual family gathering incorporating every sense in the reading experience. I could see, touch, smell, taste and hear everything through Lyons’s perfect prose from the car ride when Lil Alan’s too excited to sleep to his first glimpse of Granny, “scattering corn for her chickens like tiny bits of gold.”  I could smell her peppermint kisses, hear the laughter as more and more relatives arrived, feel the breeze during the tractor ride, taste the hot, homemade mac and cheese and see the cotton field “dotted with puffs of white.”

The story unfolds as the narrator, Lil Alan, realizes he’s forgotten something to share for the anniversary celebration and cannot enjoy himself until he figures out what contribution he can make. When he does, it’s the most heartfelt moment although there are many others in this thoughtful, moving picture book. Minter’s warm illustrations in earthy tones heighten every experience and seem to recall the family’s African roots and connection to the land. I found myself rereading the picture book several times to soak up more of Lyons’s rich language and Minter’s evocative art.

 

Feast of Peas coverFEAST OF PEAS
Written by Kashmira Sheth
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Set in an India of a bygone era, and brought to life with vivid art that spans every page, this unique folktale introduces readers to Jiva even before the title page. In Feast of Peas, Jiva’s life is centered upon gardening and doing all he can to assure his carefully planted peas will grow undisturbed. That however is not to be. Though Javi sings

Plump peas, sweet peas, Lined-up-in-the-shell peas.
Peas to munch, peas to crunch, I want a feast of peas for lunch.

his peas keep disappearing. He realizes he must construct obstacles such as a scarecrow and a fence to keep leering birds and other thieves at bay. What Jiva doesn’t realize is that no man-made deterrent will stop the peas from getting stolen if his pal Ruvji gets his way.

While little ones may not immediately pick up on the clever clues planted within the illustrations, older readers and adults will. They’ll also enjoy Ruvji’s not so subtle hints to his friend as he repeatedly smacks his lips and says, “Peas are delicious,” and “I would enjoy a feast of peas.” Jiva is determined to solve the mystery of the missing peas and the tables are hilariously turned when he plots a creative ploy to catch the pea poacher. This charming story of friendship, food and forgiveness will leave readers smiling with Ruvji’s unmasking and Jiva’s generosity and pea-licious punishment that promise a happy ending.

 

LalisFeather coverLALI’S FEATHER
Written by Farhana Zia
Illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Who knew there were so many things you could do with a feather if you just used your imagination? I love how in Lali’s Feather author Farhana Zia has created this charming picture book inspired by such a simple premise. Think about it. What would you do with a feather if you were a child and found one that was oh so right?

This story, set in an Indian village will captivate youngsters. First Lali finds the feather and, concerned it’s lost, is determined to find its owner. After Rooster, Crow and Peacock do not claim the feather, Lali keeps it to see what it can do. Displaying her creativity to Hen, Duck, Blue Jay as well as her sister and Bapu (father), Lali finds entertainment in the most unlikely of activities such as writing in the dirt, sweeping, fanning a fire, and even tickling her Bapu’s toes. That is until a gust of wind whisks it away. Lali’s animal friends, who enjoyed her feather play, join together to help her get it back when another lost object captures her interest. Coleman’s warm color palette and energetic composition will carry readers from page to page along with Zia’s sweet prose. What a colorful way to engage readers with another country, some of its language, and show how childhood and imagination are the same the world over.

 

WilliamStillandhisFreedomStories cvrWILLIAM STILL AND HIS FREEDOM STORIES
Written and illustrated by Don Tate
(Peachtree Publishing; $18.99, Ages 6-10)

Don Tate’s picture book biography, William Still and His Freedom Stories is the perfect example of how there is always something new to learn. And when it’s done well, as this one is, I don’t want it to end. That’s why I appreciate the author’s note and helpful back matter so I can read more about The Father of the Underground Railroad.

The son of enslaved parents Levin and Sidney Steel, William was born in 1821 and raised in the free North (as Still instead of Steel) after his father had earned his own freedom and settled in New Jersey. As a young boy William knew the local backwoods like the back of his hands. His life defining moment occurred when, using his knowledge of the woods, he led a former enslaved but now free neighbor to safety some twenty miles away from the clutches of slave catchers.

Once educated, the always ambitious William moved to Philadelphia in 1844. Life wasn’t easy and William barely got by doing any job he could until he landed an office clerk position at The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. “William’s employers were abolitionists who spoke loudly against slavery.” At the same time, as “freedom-seeking people were drawn to Philadelphia,” William helped however he could. His home had become a “station” on the Underground Railroad and its passengers’ struggles could not be ignored. He chronicled their journeys to freedom in the hopes of reuniting families. But by documenting their individual stories, William’s life and those he wrote about were imperiled when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. He hid his records in a cemetery for safe-keeping.

Despite rising through the ranks at the society, William still earned so little that he quit to start up a coal business. When the Civil War broke out, William prospered. “By the 1870s, he was one of the richest Black men of his time.” William used his wealth for the betterment of Blacks whether helping fund a branch of the YMCA for them or fighting to allow Black Philadelphians’ right to ride on city streetcars. Thirty years before his death in 1902 William published his first book, The Underground Rail Road, initially overlooked since it was centered on the African American perspective. Don Tate has lyrically and lovingly brought William’s story to us to honor both the man and all the other “free Black Philadelphians who worked tirelessly on behalf of their people.” His evocative illustrations bring a sense of time and place to this powerful biography and raise awareness of William Still’s important role in history.

 

KingKaylaCaseoftheUnhappyNeighbor cvrKING & KAYLA AND THE CASE OF THE UNHAPPY NEIGHBOR
Written by Dori Hillestad Butler
Illustrated by Nancy Meyers
(Peachtree Publishing; $14.99, Ages 7-9)

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award-winning series

This easy-to-read series provides just the right combination of fun and mystery to earn new fans while it continues to satisfy old ones. This sixth book, King & Kayla and the Case of The Unhappy Neighbor includes five fast-paced chapters with adorable illustrations on every page.

If you know newly independent readers who are drawn to stories where they’ll have to figure things out, they’ll be delighted to meet King and Kayla, the dog and human detective duo. If they have trouble solving the mystery, the humorous illustrations showing King’s observations should help.

Told from King’s point of view, this book begins with Kayla’s friend Jillian explaining how her puppy Thor got into a neighbor’s yard and supposedly dug it up. Mr. Gary and Jillian’s mom were cleaning up the mess when Kayla and King stopped by. It certainly did not look like the kind of mess that little Thor could muster and that got Kayla thinking. Using her critical thinking skills and asking the right questions, Kayla notes that:

•Mr. Gary saw Thor in his yard last night. – True. Thor was chasing a cat.
•Thor doesn’t like tomatoes, carrots or strawberries. – All partially eaten evidence in addition to a pile of poop left on the lawn.
•Thor isn’t big enough to knock over a trash can. – What kind of animal can?

These clues, in addition to learning from King that there’s a new guy in town, help Kayla deduce just who the culprit might be. Will young readers be one step ahead and have their suspicions confirmed? Even if they learn at the same time as Kayla, they’ll be more than satisfied at the outcome and the fun time they had on their mission. Watch out for book #7 coming this spring 2021.

 

NinaSoniFormerBestFriend coverNINA SONI: FORMER BEST FRIEND
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Jenn Kocsmiersky
(Peachtree Publishing; $15.95, Ages 7-10)

Prepare to fall head over hands (the main character Nina Soni talks with her hands a lot) for this endearing Indian-American nine-year-old in the first book of the terrific middle grade series from Kashmira Sheth. Nina Soni: Former Best Friend is told in first-person with heart and humor and loads of lists.

We meet record-keeping (we learn so much this way), loyal and easily side-tracked, Nina, right as she’s having what she believes is a major falling out with her best friend, Jay. Why? She accidentally knocked over his school project. On top of that she’s got to come up with an idea for her class Personal Narrative Project and time is running out. The good news is that her teacher tells her the project can be a list of observations. Well, that takes a bit of pressure off of her. Or does it?

Between her younger sister’s upcoming birthday party, trying to figure out what’s going on with her “former best friend,” and picking a project she can tackle, Nina’s finding it hard to stay focused. When a lesson about scientist Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of penicillin inspires Nina to pay closer attention to her own experiments, her discovery yields interesting results. That those results also help save the day at her sister’s birthday party and shed new light on her former friendship with Jay is a resolution readers will love.

With a B.S. in Microbiology, Sheth brings a welcome STEAM approach to the series which now consists of three books. She also infuses Indian culture, cuisine and Hindi language into the stories meaning it’s best to read the books on a full tummy or with snacks nearby. Kocsmiersky’ spot art throughout the book adds extra appeal to the series for those moving onto middle grade novels from chapter books.

  •  Reviews by Ronna Mandel

Click here for a link to another #ReadYourWorld post:
Five Diverse Books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 by Christine Van Zandt

 

#ReadYourWorld

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 (1/29/21) is in its 8th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.

Eight years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues. Read about our Mission & History HERE.

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Join us on Friday, Jan 29, 2021, at 9 pm EST for the 8th annual Multicultural Children’s Book Day Twitter Party!
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Kwanzaa Books for Children

CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR KWANZAA 2020

 

Kwanzaa begins on December 26 and lasts one week. Learn more about this joyous African American holiday by sharing the books reviewed here.

 

 

Lil Rabbits Kwanzaa paperback cvrLI’L RABBIT’S KWANZAA
Written by Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
(Katherine Tegen Books; $7.99, Ages 3-7)

Young readers will be easily charmed by Li’l Rabbit. Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa, now available in a paperback edition, was originally published in 2010 but its story is timeless.

Despite being frustrated during Kwanzaa for multiple reasons in addition to being told he’s too little to help, Li’l Rabbit still looks forward to his favorite part of the weeklong holiday, Karamu, the festive meal served on the sixth night.

But Granna Rabbit is sick and can’t prepare the meal. “Kwanzaa,” Li’l Rabbit recalls his granna telling him, “is a special time when we help each other.” Her words set him off on a search for a Zawadi (gift, often homemade) to cheer her up. During his quest, various forest friends ask him what he’s doing, and after he explains they all remark how they, too, wish there was something they could do to help. It seems Granna Rabbit has always made time to help out these animals and her good deeds have meant so much to them. When Li’l Rabbit returns home empty-handed and disappointed, he is surprised to see the animals he’d encountered celebrating with food, fun, and friendship. What a surprise for Li’l Rabbit to learn from his granna that her spirits have been lifted not only because of what their thoughtful neighbors have contributed but most of all because Li’l Rabbit’s dream made it happen.

Evan’s buoyant illustrations bring the Kwanzaa festivities to life with their rich colors, patterns, and energy. This picture book will resonate with any child who has ever felt left out or too small to make a difference. I appreciated the back matter including The Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa as well as a glossary of words that were used in the story.

 

Kwanzaa SpotHolidayseries cvrKWANZAA
A Spot Holiday Book
Written by Mari Schuh
(Amicus; $7.99, Ages 5 and up)

Many kids want to pick out books they can read by themselves to improve their skills and feel successful. Parents, teachers, and librarians can’t argue with that. Why not take a look at the Spot (an imprint of Amicus) Holiday series geared to emergent readers? The photographs are beautiful and the text is purposefully simple to encourage beginners while providing an engaging way into diverse cultures and traditions.

In Mari Schuh’s Kwanzaa, as well as all the other series’ books, children can enjoy a search and find feature at the beginning (see the art below), with pictures and words.

 

Kwanzaa int1
Interior photographs from Kwanzaa written by Mari Schuh, Amicus ©2020.

 

“The text uses high-frequency words and repeating sentence structures” empowering new readers while introducing them to new vocabulary via holidays many of their classmates, friends, and neighbors celebrate. Other books in the series include Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah, Easter, and Christmas. I’m glad to have discovered this series and look forward to sharing more Amicus books in the future.

 

Read a review of another diverse holiday picture book here.

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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.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 1
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.

 

Pages from A Place to Land interior Page 2
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 Biography – Feed Your Mind by Jen Bryant

FEED YOUR MIND: A STORY OF AUGUST WILSON

Written by Jen Bryant

Illustrated by Cannaday Chapman

(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

Jen Bryant, who has won numerous awards for her books for children, which include biographies of poet William Carlos Williams, and Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, has written the biography of August Wilson. The picture book, presented in two acts and 48 pages, is an inspiring and lyrical introduction to the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Black playwright who died in 2005.

Young readers are probably unfamiliar with Wilson’s work and Bryant writes mostly about his early years at school and the beginning of his career.

 

FYM Interior2
Interior spread from Feed Your Mind written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

Frederick August Kittel, Jr. was raised with a sister and single mother, who cleaned houses. His mother, Daisy, made sure Frederick learned to read, telling him, “If you can read, you can do anything – you can be anything.” Bryant tells about the racism Wilson and his family experiencedbrick-throwing, name-calling, fights, and accusations of cheatingdriving Wilson from school after school, setting him on a course of self-education, reading all day in libraries. Wilson finds the “universe opens wide” when, as a teenager, he encounters Black authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

His first paid writing job was completing his sister’s homework; he bought a used typewriter, composing poems after he finished washing dishes at the diner. The talk and stories of Black men in his community, many working at menial jobs, provided the dialogue for his poems and plays. Working odd jobs in a soup kitchen, Wilson listened to stories. “Who’s there? What are they saying … and why?” he asked himself, and these figures became characters in his dramas.

 

FYM Interior3
Interior spread from Feed Your Mind written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

Debut illustrator Cannaday Chapman uses a limited color palette of earth tones to show the expressions on Wilson’s face and his connection to his environment.

Bryant includes a detailed Author’s Note explaining her interest in Wilson, her extensive research, and her process for writing the book. Students will enjoy her description of spreading her pages down her hallway. Feed Your Mind is an important book about an author of color, who endured poverty and racism, and whose life shows the power of literacy and community.

  • Guest review by Julia Wasson, veteran educator and curriculum developer.

Read another picture book biography here.

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Kids Book Review for Women’s History Month – Remarkable Women

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH
A ROUNDUP OF THE BEST BOOKS FOR KIDS

 

The wonderful thing about nonfiction biographies is that, when done well, they will take us on a journey full of facts, stories, and struggles that will not only enlighten us but also keep us glued to the page, even when we know the outcome. The following books we’ve selected to share for Women’s History Month are excellent examples of recent biographies about extraordinary, trailblazing women whose legacies are enduring and whose contributions remain invaluable serving as powerful role models for generations to come. Find out more about Hedy Lamarr, Susan B. Anthony and Ada Byron Lovelace below.

 

cover art by Katy Wu from Hedy Lamarr's Double Life by Laurie WallmarkHEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE: 
Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor
Written by Laurie Wallmark
Illustrated by Katy Wu
(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.99, Ages 5 and up)

Wallmark’s chosen a fascinating woman to profile in her illuminating picture book biography of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood legend was more than dazzlingly beautiful actress, she was a secret inventor whose “greatest invention was the technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum” which has played a crucial role in keeping “our cell phone messages private” and keeping our computers hack-free. Although she knew she was more than just her looks, Lamarr chose to hide this talent from public and didn’t sell her inventions.

Born in Austria in 1920 (100 years after Susan B. Anthony), Hedy was a curious child who, when other kids would likely be out playing, was pre-occupied with how things worked. Her father encouraged her interest in science and technology which no doubt had a positive impact on the young girl. She also had a love of cinema and pretending so it was no surprise she gravitated towards a career in the movies. “I acted all the time … I was a little living copybook. I wrote people down on me.”  Eventually doors opened for Hedy when a famous film producer offered her a seven-year film contract. She left her homeland for the bright lights of Hollywood, had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and went on to star in films with some of the industry’s most popular leading men including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.

With her wondering mind at work all the time, even after a day of filming, Lamarr always was thinking about a way to improve on things already in existence or to create something new. That was especially true during WWII. So when she met composer George Antheil, a former weapons inspector, she learned from him that the U.S. Navy, like the European ones, had trouble with the enemy jamming their weapons’ radio signals. Hedy wondered if there was a way to counter this. With the piano as the impetus for a new idea, Hedy thought there might be a way to change frequencies like playing the same keys on a piano in different octaves, and by doing so build a secure torpedo guidance system. And so, after a lot of hard work, they did. Together with Antheil they shared their invention and were told it was “red-hot” but it still needed more work to operate effectively. While the pair eventually received their patent, the Navy “refused to develop” this ground-breaking technology and even classified it as secret so no one else could use the idea. Ultimately they never earned a penny from this breakthrough.

Undeterred by her thwarted efforts to help her adopted homeland, Hedy found success by getting behind the war bond effort, selling millions. Lamarr also took time to meet with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and pitched in any way she could. She retired From the movie business in the late 50s and only in the last twenty years has been earning the recognition long overdue. Wu’s artwork is just the right amount of subject and space, and pulls us into every illustration, my favorite being the one where Lamarr and Antheil first meet at a dinner party. Her simple depictions of Lamarr’s big green eyes, sculpted nose and brown hair are terrific. Wallmark’s added a “Timeline” and “Secrets of the Secret Communications System” in the back matter for young readers to learn more about “jam-proofing” technology. I love how even the endpapers are filled with artwork and details about Lamarr. Plus readers will find a “Selected Bibliography,” “Additional Reading About Other Women in Stem” and a list of “Hedy Lamarr’s Films.” Award-winning author Wallmark’s also written picture book biographies about Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper.  Add Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life to the list of must-read biographies.

Susan B Anthony The Making of America by Teri Kanefield book cover image and artSUSAN B. ANTHONY:
The Making of America #4
Written by Teri Kanefield
(Abrams BYR; $16.99, Ages 10-14)

Prepare to be impressed by the tireless commitment and inroads Susan B. Anthony made for women’s suffrage as detailed by Teri Kanefield in Susan B. Anthony: The Making of America, book #4 in this inspiring series in which each volume “tells the story of an American leader who helped shaped the United States” that we know today. My review copy is so dog-eared to mark the countless passages I wanted to return to. What Kanefield successfully does from the Prologue forward is thoughtfully convey the most important aspects of Anthony’s life so kids will see the evolution of her beliefs beginning with her Quaker upbringing, her teaching years and all the way through to her time lecturing across America as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

What comes across to the reader is that Anthony, born in 1820, prior to the Victorian era, from an early age held strong convictions that everyone should be treated as equals. At that time in our country’s history women were supposed to raise families and keep their noses out of politics and practically everything else unless it concerned homemaking. They were only allowed to work in a limited amount of jobs: teacher, seamstress or nanny. They were prohibited from owning property and, in the case of estrangement in a marriage, the man gained custody of the children. In fact, it was not uncommon for a man to have his wife committed to an insane asylum if he wanted out of the marriage.

The immoral slave trade was the most divisive issue, even among Quakers at that time. To Anthony, people of color as well as women were not second class citizens, destined to remain subservient to white men. This was considered a radical idea in the early 19th century and she did not have an easy path as she tried, along with her friend and fellow activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to bring about change and a new amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Frederick Douglass was a friend with whom she worked to help first abolish slavery and then gain constitutional protection for free slaves. However, before slavery was abolished and even after, prominent politicians and leaders cautioned her to put her agenda for women’s rights on hold. This was unacceptable. Anthony, along with her friend and staunchest ally, Stanton, challenged the notion that women had to forgo their wants and needs and remained determined “to ride roughshod over obstacles, ignore critics, and take help wherever they could get it.” The support of Anthony’s large family was a constant throughout her life and I wonder how she’d have managed without them during the numerous times she was broke or in debt. Her intelligence and quick wit made her the ideal person to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement but it’s worth noting that she also gravitated towards defending anyone whose rights were being abused.

This well-researched biography is filled with maps, photos, flyers, posters and advertisements that help paint a picture of American society during Anthony’s life. Even something like a lady’s corset could be symbolic of the self-imposed restrictions 19th century women placed upon themselves due to societal norms that a woman should have an hourglass figure. “Girls as young as seven were laced into overly tight corsets.” Also included are Notes, a Time Line, Selected Writings of Susan B. Anthony, a Bibliography, Acknowledgments and an Index.

By the time she died at age 86, four states allowed women to vote but it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson and the start of WWI that an amendment to give women the vote would gain traction, ultimately becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, in 1920, fourteen years after her death. Kanefield’s invaluable biography paints a portrait of an American hero whose convictions  changed the course of American history

 

book cover illustration from Dreaming in Code Ada Byron Lovelace Computer PioneerDREAMING IN CODE
Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer
Written by Emily Arnold McCully
(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 12 and up)

I told everyone about Ada Byron Lovelace after finishing Dreaming in Code. I had heard her name in regards to code but it ended there. I knew nothing of the back story that led to this brilliant woman’s presaging today’s computer era almost two centuries ago!

Ada Byron Lovelace was born in England at the end of 1815, just five years before Susan B. Anthony. Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of the celebrated poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his “prim, religious” wife, Anne Isabella Noel, called Annabella, a woman of wealth and intelligence. The couple did not remain together due to his philandering and squandering of money among other things so Ada, as she became known, was raised by a single mother. Annabella was a self-centered hypochondriac yet quite philanthropic at the same time and left it to nannies, governesses and tutors to raise her child while she spent time away visiting her newly inherited holdings and helping the coal miners under her employ. McCully engagingly details how Ada flourished from her education although she remained removed from society until her mother deemed it necessary to find her a husband.

Around this time Ada met Charles Babbage, “famous inventor, philosopher (as scientists were then called) and mathematician”  who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University. Theirs was to be a long and intense, though completely platonic, relationship as they discussed big ideas since both were passionate about math and science. Their friendship provided Ada with the outlet she needed for stimulation. However things grew complicated when she married William, Lord King who became the Earl of Lovelace and soon became a mother. Though not as cold as her own mother, Ada, too, found it difficult to parent when her loyalties lay elsewhere. These chapters were some of the most fascinating ones yet sad at the same time. She often felt ill and, as was common in the early 19th century, was prescribed Laudanum, a tincture of opium viewed as a cure-all. That addiction had to have contributed to her early death at age 37.

As Countess of Lovelace, Ada mixed with a cross-section of society and attended talks on science given by brilliant minds of the era such as Michael Faraday. Ada also wanted to help Babbage and his Analytical Engine and at the same time make her own mark in the science and math fields. Here’s where her genius shone through. While Babbage saw his invention as “arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical,” Ada believed the machine could do more than compute … “that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a prototype-computer.” Sadly, Lovelace lived in era when women were overshadowed by men and women’s freedoms were limited. We can only begin to imagine what miraculous achievements she’d have made had she only lived longer.

With the very readable Dreaming in Code highlighting her meticulous research, McCully has shed light on Ada Byron Lovelace, an important historical figure whose contributions to the field of STEM are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I recommend this young adult nonfiction book for anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the era in which Lovelace lived and how she was inspired to think outside the box.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Read about the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass here.
Read another book, Dare The Wind, illustrated Emily Arnold McCully here.

 

 

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42 Is Not Just A Number by Doreen Rappaport for MCBD2018

42 IS NOT JUST A NUMBER:

The Odyssey of Jackie Robinson, American Hero

Written by Doreen Rappaport

(Candlewick Press; $15.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Let’s celebrate
The 5th Annual Multicultural Children’s Book Day
& Spread the word about #ReadYourWorld!

 

Cover image for 42 Is Not Just a Number

 

We’re thrilled to once again participate in #MCBD2018 by sharing a review of 42 Is Not Just a Number, a fantastic middle grade biography by award-winning author, Doreen Rappaport, focusing on the life of legendary athlete, Jackie Robinson.

REVIEW:

It’s hard to believe I live less than 10 miles away from places in Pasadena that played such an important role in Jackie Robinson’s life, yet I never knew all their significance. After reading Rappaport’s 42 Is Not Just a Number, kids will understand why Jackie Robinson was destined to help break down the color barriers that existed in his lifetime, and is considered an American hero and champion of civil rights. Who knows when African-Americans would have been allowed in Major League Baseball had it not been for Robinson’s courage and determination? In fact, this past summer was the 70th anniversary of that sport’s desegregation, but it was not an easy feat to accomplish in the Jim Crow era with its rampant racism, segregation and discrimination.

In this meticulously researched biography packed with eye-opening stories and quotes, Rappaport takes us from Jack “Jackie” Robinson’s childhood through his college and military years to his baseball career, and concludes with his early death at age 53. The chapters flow easily and Rappaport shares just the right amount and choice of information to engage young readers, whether they’re sports fans or not.

Robinson, born in 1919, was raised by a single mom along with his four siblings. One of them, Mack, became a track and field silver medalist in the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin when another black man, Jesse Owens, took home gold. Mama or Maillie, Robinson’s mother, moved the family from Georgia to Southern California when Jackie was just a one-year-old in hopes of giving her family a better life. The racial climate of Pasadena at that time, though not as restrictive and oppressive as the Jim Crow South, was still segregated, something that young Jackie could not tolerate. He was quick to lose his temper at the injustice he saw and got into trouble a lot. However, with the positive guidance of Reverand Karl Downs, Jackie, who excelled in all sports, learned to channel his frustration and anger in other ways. No matter what sport he played, his speed, skill and quick learning brought accolades. But despite his talent, there was no chance to pursue a career if playing on a team meant integrating with whites. It just wasn’t done or accepted by many. After serving in WWII, Jackie joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball League and was scouted by the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s how Jackie’s abilities were recognized and within a year the trailblazing Dodgers’ manager, Branch Rickey, signed him with the Dodgers, shirt #42! However Jackie had to steer clear of controversy. “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey told Jackie upon bringing him onboard the team. Jackie knew the manager was right and that if he was going to effect change, Rickey’s advice had to be heeded although at times it was almost impossible.

Jackie’s star was rising and Black Americans from hundreds of miles away traveled to see this amazing talent steal bases, hit home runs and shine. Despite all the acclaim, Jackie continued to face prejudice at every turn. Ultimately it was Jackie’s spirit and convictions that won over fans’ hearts across the country. “In a nationwide contest of the most respected men in America, Jackie was ahead of President Truman and WWII heroes General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur …” 42 Is Not Just a Number deftly chronicles this inspirational man’s impact not only upon his sport but also upon his era. I am confident young readers will agree.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

ABOUT MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY: 

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2018 (1/27/18) is in its 5th year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.

Current Sponsors:  MCBD 2018 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board.

2018 MCBD Medallion Sponsors:

HONORARY: Children’s Book Council, Junior Library Guild

PLATINUM: Scholastic Book Clubs

GOLD: Audrey Press, Candlewick Press, Loving Lion Books, Second Story Press, Star Bright Books, Worldwide Buddies

SILVER: Capstone Publishing, Author Charlotte Riggle, Child’s Play USA, KidLit TV, Pack-n-Go Girls, Plum Street Press

BRONZE: Barefoot Books, Carole P. Roman, Charlesbridge Publishing, Dr. Crystal BoweGokul! World, Green Kids Club, Gwen Jackson, Jacqueline Woodson, Juan J. Guerra, Language Lizard, Lee & Low Books, RhymeTime Storybooks, Sanya Whittaker Gragg, TimTimTom Books, WaterBrook & Multnomah, Wisdom Tales Press

2018 Author Sponsors:

Honorary Author Sponsors: Author/Illustrator Aram Kim and Author/Illustrator Juana Medina

Author Janet Balletta, Author Susan Bernardo, Author Carmen Bernier-Grand, Author Tasheba Berry-McLaren and Space2Launch, Bollywood Groove Books, Author Anne Broyles, Author Kathleen Burkinshaw, Author Eugenia Chu, Author Lesa Cline-Ransome, Author Medeia Cohan and Shade 7 Publishing, Desi Babies, Author Dani Dixon and Tumble Creek Press, Author Judy Dodge Cummings, Author D.G. Driver, Author Nicole Fenner and Sister Girl Publishing, Debbi Michiko Florence, Author Josh Funk, Author Maria Gianferrari, Author Daphnie Glenn, Globe Smart Kids, Author Kimberly Gordon Biddle, Author Quentin Holmes, Author Esther Iverem, Jennifer Joseph: Alphabet Oddities, Author Kizzie Jones, Author Faith L Justice, Author P.J. LaRue and MysticPrincesses.com, Author Karen Leggett Abouraya, Author Sylvia Liu, Author Sherri Maret, Author Melissa Martin Ph.D., Author Lesli Mitchell, Pinky Mukhi and We Are One, Author Miranda Paul, Author Carlotta Penn, Real Dads Read, Greg Ransom, Author Sandra L. Richards, RealMVPKids Author Andrea Scott, Alva Sachs and Three Wishes Publishing, Shelly Bean the Sports Queen, Author Sarah Stevenson, Author Gayle H. Swift Author Elsa Takaoka, Author Christine Taylor-Butler, Nicholette Thomas and  MFL Publishing Author Andrea Y. Wang, Author Jane Whittingham Author Natasha Yim

MCBD 2018 Poster Art by Aram KimWe’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.

TWITTER PARTY Sponsored by Scholastic Book Clubs: MCBD’s super-popular (and crazy-fun) annual Twitter Party will be held 1/27/18 at 9:00pm.

Join the conversation and win one of 12-5 book bundles and one Grand Prize Book Bundle (12 books) that will be given away at the party! http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/twitter-party-great-conversations-fun-prizes-chance-readyourworld-1-27-18/

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta

Free Empathy Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teacher-classroom-empathy-kit/

Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use our official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

 

 

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Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin

MUDDY: THE STORY OF BLUES LEGEND MUDDY WATERS
Written by Michael Mahin
Illustrated by Evan Turk
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Booklist

 

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters book cover

 

Don’t miss the biography of the man and his music in Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters.

The story of blues legend Muddy Waters is told in prose which reads like one of his songs, filled with both sweetness and longing. Author Michael Mahin does a fine job of recreating for a young reader the life of Muddy Waters from his childhood days to one of the high points of his career, the creation of his first album.

All along the way through the book, beside those sweet and longing words of the author, are Evan Turk’s amazing illustrations that take your breath away. They look like the blues! They look like Muddy Water’s story and some of his soul. Strong lines paint the bold story of the legend, and color reaches out to convey the emotion that Muddy was going through at different times in his life. Truly these are some of the most unique illustrations to appear in a picture book. The people in Muddy’s life reach high in church, bow low over a harmonica, every movement is full of energy. Muddy’s grandmother appears as a larger than life character. She takes up so much room in one memorable two-page spread that one cannot escape the dominant presence she must have had in Muddy’s life. There is some kind of motion everywhere, in the playing of music, in the form of Muddy’s grandmother as she hangs her laundry while dancing to Muddy’s music, and in the movement of Muddy himself as he plays and sings.

 

Int art from Muddy by Michael Mahin with art by Evan Turk
Interior spread from Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin with illustrations by Evan Turk, Atheneum BYR ©2017.

 

The often repeated words, “But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.” tell the story of a man who would not be dictated to by any boss but himself, and who successfully turned that persistence into a sound that the music world had never heard before, a precursor to rock and roll.  This is a story that shows a child that sometimes staying true to yourself is one of the hardest battles, but ultimately one of the best. Muddy never gave up on his music the way he heard it, never listening to naysayers. All of us have something like that call in our lives. Muddy teaches us through his experiences to listen to that call, be true to it and to never stop believing that one day it will enable each of us to add a new sound to the world. One passage accompanied by a striking depiction of Muddy singing reads like music:

He called up the sticky heat of a summer

night, the power of love, and the need

for connection in a world that was

so good at pulling people apart.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters is an incredibly powerful picture book in every respect and is highly recommended. At the bookstore where I work, this is a staff favorite because we all agree that it is one of the most extraordinary picture books we have seen this year. Muddy is a wonderful introduction to the life of a legend as well as an inspirational and evocative experience of art so well matched to the man and his blues that you can almost hear the music playing.

This hardcover picture book will be available September 5, 2017 but can be pre-ordered now.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

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She Persisted Written by Chelsea Clinton

SHE PERSISTED:
13 American Women Who Changed the World
Written by Chelsea Clinton
Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger
(Philomel; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

Cover image from SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton

 

She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton’s historical picture book, celebrates thirteen strong and inspirational American women who overcame obstacles because they persisted. Featured are Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor. The book’s opening line, “Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy” sets the tone. With perseverance comes progress.

 

Interior artwork from SHE PERSISTED by Chelsea Clinton with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
Interior spread from SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger, Philomel Books ©2017.

 

Each woman’s legacy is summarized in only one paragraph and includes the motivational words “she persisted”; the text is offset by corresponding images and a relevant quote. More personal than a history textbook, these bite-size biographies share a glimpse into the adversity overcome to achieve individual dreams. The book’s concluding words, “They persisted and so should you,” reinforces camaraderie and illuminates the message that, if you stick with it, you, too, can evoke change.

 

Interior artwork from SHE PERSISTED by Chelsea Clinton with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
Interior spread from SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger, Philomel Books ©2017.

 

Alexandra Boiger’s watercolor and ink images contrast muted tones alongside bright colors to effectively showcase these important moments. The opening two-page spread includes pictures of fourteen women; though not mentioned in the text, Hillary Clinton is depicted here.

She Persisted would make an encouraging gift for young girls “stepping up” through grades in elementary school. It would seem fitting that Chelsea Clinton write an accompanying book for boys.


Chelsea Clinton
is the author of the New York Times bestselling It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! and, with Devi Sridhar, Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why? She is also the Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, where she works on many initiatives including those that help to empower the next generation of leaders. She lives in New York City with her husband, Marc, their daughter, Charlotte, their son, Aidan, and their dog, Soren. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChelseaClinton or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/chelseaclinton.

Alexandra Boiger grew up in Munich, Germany, and studied graphic design before working as an animator in England and then at Dreamworks SKG in the United States. She is the author and illustrator of Max and Marla, and the illustrator of more than twenty picture books including the Tallulah series, and When Jackie Saved Grand Central. She has received the Parents’ Choice Award and has been featured on numerous state reading lists. Alexandra lives in California with her husband, Andrea, daughter, Vanessa, and two cats, Luiso and Winter. You can visit her online at www.alexandraboiger.com.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Shackles From The Deep by Michael H. Cottman

SHACKLES FROM THE DEEP:
Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship,
a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy
by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael H. Cottman
(National Geographic Kids; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

Starred review – Booklist

cover image off Shackles From The Deep by Michael H. Cottman

 

A fascinating and fast read, Michael H. Cottman’s compelling Shackles From The Deep will open middle grade readers’ eyes and minds to the abhorrent “international business” that was the slave trade. In 22 brief but gripping chapters, Cottman, an avid scuba diver, goes in search of the dark history behind the 17th century slave ship called the Henrietta Marie. Through diving below the surface and delving above the surface with the help of a dedicated team of professionals, Cottman learns not only about “the bitter past” that shrouded the ship, but about himself and the African people forced into slavery who could very well have been his ancestors. 

Possibly the world’s oldest slave ship discovery, and certainly the oldest in North America, the Henrietta Marie and its bounty of watch bell, iron cannon, and iron shackles helped shed light on the inhumane industry that ripped West Africans from their homes, separated families, and brought them against their will to places such as Barbados and Jamaica to work on plantations. This slave ship, found accidentally while looking for a different wreck, had been torn apart during a hurricane off Key West in Florida in the 1700s. 

Cottman’s journey to find answers about the individuals who captained the ship, commissioned the ship’s slave cargo, and made the shackles and weapons on board led him to three continents over four years. And though he was never able to find definitive proof of who exactly might have been carried below deck in wretched conditions for months on end, Cottman did meet a family in Jamaica whose roots likely could be traced back to the Henrietta Marie if those records were available. One of the most moving parts of Shackles From The Deep was when Cottman travelled to Senegal and toured Gorée Island. There he visited the House of Slaves, built in 1526, and home to the infamous Door of No Return named as such because those enslaved Africans leaving through it never ever came back.

Cottman felt it was important to retrace the route the Henrietta Marie would have taken and, by taking us along with him as engaged readers, we quickly learn why. Tearing families apart and treating them like animals made no sense as one missionary’s account detailed:

The English take very little care of their slaves and feed them very badly …The overseers make them work
beyond measure and beat them mercilessly…and they seem to care less for the life of a Negro than a horse.

Ending his journey in Africa where it all began after those earlier visits to Barbardos, Jamaica and England, provided a way for Cottman to return through that Door of No Return on behalf of all the unfortunate souls who never had the chance. The story ends, having come full circle from the initial discovery, with the author’s visit to an underwater memorial at the wreckage site of the Henrietta Marie. 


“I had learned that the site of the wreck is a place where I am never really alone,
a place where I feel connected to my past and ancestors. I had learned that lasting
friendships can be forged––regardless of racial backgrounds––even while exploring a sunken slave ship.”

There are several ways for readers to approach this well-written narrative nonfiction novel. From the sheer storytelling perspective, it is completely absorbing and satisfying, in fact I read it in one sitting. As a page turning detective novel, it’s rich in detail with Cottman’s journalistic abilities highlighted as he asks the right questions and tracks down individuals around the globe to piece together the puzzle that is the Henrietta Marie. When children read Shackles From the Deep they will gain a better understanding of slavery and the dehumanization of people that was perpetrated for 300 years, and hopefully be the force to prevent such cruelty from ever happening again.

Click here to visit Michael H. Cottman’s website.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

 

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Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

 

TWO FRIENDS:
SUSAN B. ANTHONY AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Written by Dean Robbins,
Illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
(Orchard Books/Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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Two Friends is an excellent and inspiring new picture book about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It’s told in such an immediate way that the reader is drawn right into the lives of these two legendary figures as they have tea together. Susan’s life is summed up best by the sentence, “And Susan had many things to do.” She really did. Author Dean Robbins looks back on Susan’s childhood noting that she did not get the education she wanted or deserved. This enables illustrators Qualls and Alko to portray Susan B. Anthony’s life in gorgeous and yet deceptively simple illustrations that show childhood pictures of Susan’s life at home that they’ve imagined her drawing. Susan’s journey to get the vote and to fight for equality got some mixed reactions by her peers, but it never stopped her.

 

Two Friends Interior Spread 1
Two Friends by Dean Robbins, Illustrations © 2016 by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

Having taken us into Susan’s life, the illustrations return the reader back to these two friends talking over tea. Frederick Douglass tells Susan B. Anthony his exciting news about his newspaper. These magical words float across the page, “We are all brethren. Right is of no gender… of no color… Truth is of no color…” Frederick’s life is told as simply and as truthfully as Susan’s. Born a slave, he dreamed of learning to read and write. Qualls and Alko portray Frederick Douglass with a look of determination on his face as he reads a book. Like Susan, he wonders why some people have rights and others don’t. The illustrations clearly tell us that he has beautiful dreams of having something more. “The right to live free. The right to vote,” is what he is aiming for, something both Douglass and Anthony have in common. He was met with the same fate as Susan. Some of his peers liked what he had to say, but others didn’t. Frederick is shown standing proud while delivering a speech.

 

Two Friends Interior Spread 4
Two Friends by Dean Robbins, Illustrations © 2016 by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

 

The two friends have promised to assist each other in gaining the rights they deserve. One illustration that just may be my favorite depicts Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in a circle of support, surrounded by so many loving friends of all colors. In another, as seen above, a charming blue and white tea set remains visible on the table between them as they discuss their plans. Two candles on the table glow, symbolizing each of their luminary presences to readers. So many things they both have to do, but friendship and tea comes first! My mother loves children’s books and as I showed her this one she said, “That’s the most beautiful children’s book I have ever seen. It’s my favorite one now.” High praise from someone who is a writer herself, and has very high standards! It is stunningly perfect in text and illustrations. I love the bit of peach that shines though Frederick’s hair and suit. Equally pleasing is the same peach in Susan’s cheeks and dress. Even both their skin tones have a bit of that lovely color that seems to join them together visually as united in their causes. Two Friends is simple enough for a small child to understand, and a wonderful conversation prompter about the important contributions of both these great people. I can think of no better picture book published recently that would be more important to add to your child’s library. Highly recommended!

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber
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Frederick’s Journey and an Interview with London Ladd

FREDERICK’S JOURNEY:
THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS
An Interview With Illustrator London Ladd

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Written by Doreen Rappaport
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Disney/Jump at the Sun; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

What’s the first thing I noticed when picking up my review copy of Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass? The piercing eyes of Douglass in illustrator London Ladd’s cover portrait and the absence of a title on the front. Then, gripped by the story, I devoured the book, not once, but twice in my initial read throughs of this expertly crafted picture book. Part  of the Big Words series, Frederick’s Journey effortlessly pairs Rappaport’s thoughtful biography of this former slave turned author, abolitionist and ultimately free man with Douglass’ actual words. “Douglass had traveled far – from slave to free man, from illiterate to educated, from powerless to powerful. It had been a difficult journey.” The book ends with this quote from Douglass, “What is possible for me is possible for you.” As a picture book, Frederick’s Journey is brought to life by Ladd’s inspiring artwork. I’ve interviewed this talented illustrator once before, but felt compelled to reach out again, this time for his insight on creating the illustrations and what working on the book meant to him.

An Interview with London Ladd

GRWR: Please tell us how you came to be connected with this project?

London Ladd: The publisher contacted my agent at Painted Words, Lori Nowicki, to see if I would be interested. I read the title of the manuscript [and] the answer was a definite yes. Once I read the through the manuscript I was so moved by it, so eager to get started.

GRWR: How do you decide what medium you’ll use for each book you illustrate and what did you choose for Frederick’s Journey and why?

LADD: For my illustration career I’ve primarily use acrylic with minor touched of pastels and colored pencils on illustration board if necessary. People says acrylics are challenging to use, but I love its flexibility because you can make it look like watercolor with layered thin washes or heavy opaque application like oils. It’s something I’ve always been comfortable using and quick drying is excellent for fast approaching deadlines.

GRWR: You mention in the back matter Illustrator’s Note how deep you dove into the research to really understand your subject including actually posing yourself in front of a mirror and reciting lines. Was there any particular text from Rappaport or quote from Douglass that you found most inspiring for this story’s artwork?

LADD: Rappaport’s text was so excellent with the way she gracefully combined her text with Douglass’ own quotes. But his autobiography was so powerful because you’re getting a first hand account in all its detail of his experience as a slave during the 19th century. Each page was filled with so much raw, honest, brutal, heart breaking material. So many vivid images would pop into my head from sadness, anger.

GRWR: Was there one particular image in the book that most resonated for you?

LADD: I think the first three images [see below] as a whole really resonate for me deeply due to the range of emotions and sounds I hear from the heart wrenching scream of Frederick’s mother as he’s being taken from her, the peacefulness of the river when he’s fishing with his grandmother, and his low weeping as he suddenly realizes his grandmother is gone and now his new life begins in the institution of slavery.

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: You travelled to a lot of places in Douglass’s history, which place made the biggest impression on you?

LADD: Wow it’s so hard to pick one. Visiting his home in Anacostia was powerful. But I’ll have to go with a trip to Rochester in 2006. During my last semester in college I enrolled in an African American religious history course and the final was this amazing project where you had to travel to historical locations involved in the Underground Railroad in and around the Central New York area like Harriet Tubman’s grave and church in Auburn, NY. Well it happens that Douglass’ grave at Mount Hope Cemetery (Susan B. Anthony is buried there, too) in Rochester NY was on the list. The cemetery is huge and his grave is by the front street nearby so vehicles drive by constantly so it can be a little noisy. When walking to his grave it was so quiet with only a slight wind blowing. Being at his gravesite was moving. I just stood there silently for 20 minutes with many emotions going through my mind. After visiting his grave there was this incredible interactive Douglass exhibit at a local nearby museum and I’ll never forget it. So much on display like his North Star press, part of a house with hidden area for slaves, a double-sided mirror that when you dim the lights Douglass’ face appeared on the other side, an exhibit where you lay in a really small area like slave did during the middle passage (that had a strong impact on me) and so much more. Ten years later and it’s still one of my favorite museum exhibits.

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd
Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: Not many illustrators get a front cover portrait with no title as an assignment. That’s a huge honor and your cover is outstanding. Can you tell us more about how that decision was made?

LADD: Thank you so much. That’s what makes the Big Words series so unique from other book series because each biography has this beautiful portrait of a well known person with the title on the back. That’s why I worked so hard on trying to not only capture Douglass’ likeness, but his essence. 

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd
Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: In a previous interview here you said “The human spirit interests me. I love stories of a person or people achieving through difficult circumstances by enduring, surviving and overcoming.” Douglass clearly exemplified that spirit. Who else, either living or deceased would you like to portray next in your artwork or in a story of your own creation?

LADD: Ernest Shackleton! I would love to illustrate Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. An absolutely amazing story of when, in the early 20th century, he and his crew were stranded near Antarctica for nearly two years and everyone survived. It’s a testament to his tremendous leadership during the whole ordeal.

This Shackleton quote sums up my attitude towards any challenges I face. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd
Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: It’s said art is a universal language. What is it about making art and teaching it as well that speaks to you?

LADD: I think to be able to share with other people is something very important to me. I wouldn’t be here without the help of other people so it’s always been my goal to pay it forward when possible.

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd
Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

London_LaddGRWR: Can you share with us anything else about your experience working on Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass?

LADD: I truly loved working on this book and I’m so thankful to have been part of such a special project. Hopefully young people will learn, enjoy and appreciate the life of Frederick Douglass.

A huge thank you to London Ladd for this candid and informative interview. 

Click here to download a teacher’s guide.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel
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I am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer

I AM MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
(ORDINARY PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD)
Written by Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $12.99, Ages 5-8)

 

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This fabulous nonfiction series called Ordinary People Change the World asks the question, “What makes a hero?” Then, while his latest, I am Martin Luther King, Jr. takes its place alongside seven previously published titles, author Meltzer answers that question. By honing in on certain positive traits of the young King, the biographer immediately pulls readers in while introducing this great man born 87 years ago.

As a child, MLK got “into a lot of accidents,” but never let unfortunate circumstances keep him down. Recounted in first person, King tells us, “No matter how many times I fell, I kept getting back up.” Enamored with the power of language, King surrounded himself with books, ultimately becoming the powerhouse speaker who, at age 35, won a Noble Peace Prize and is still frequently quoted today. His negative experiences with segregation and racism began at an early age. But, rather than hate, King’s parents taught the angry young boy “that it’s better to have more love in your life than hate.” He also learned that the color of his skin did not make him any less of a person. “You are as good as anyone,” his mother told him. Throughout his formative years, King felt the injustice in society and was determined to make changes. Influenced by the writings of Thoreau and Gandhi, MLK strove to eliminate segregation peacefully, without violence.

The arrest of Rosa Parker for refusing to give up her seat on a bus prompted a yearlong boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama by black people. It worked! This was a pivotal time for the growing civil rights movement. King gave a moving speech about justice and moral courage, but was also arrested for orchestrating the boycott. King’s strategy led to countless other protests, and sit-ins as he helped give voice to a people whose growing calls for equality needed to be heard. The Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama and then the massive March on Washington were turning points in history culminating with MLK’s powerful I Have a Dream speech. Soon after “the president and Congress passed new laws for civil rights,” but the work for equality was still not over. Black people had no rights to vote and that, too, had to be overcome. Eventually, it was.

Conveyed via text and speech bubbles, and illustrated in Eliopoulos’s fun-to-look-at comic-style (who can resist the mustachioed, mini-sized, black suited MLK narrator), I am Martin Luther King, Jr., is an ideal way to introduce youngsters to one of America’s great leaders. Not only does Meltzer share some of the most important aspects of MLK’s life with children, but he makes it meaningful, memorable and moving for such a short book. The back matter includes a timeline, some photos, as well as sources and further reading for kids. I thoroughly enjoyed this kid-friendly picture book that combines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational story along with “Dr. King’s actual dialogue whenever possible.” It clearly demonstrates to children how one individual, armed with only a dream and determination, can make a huge difference and a lasting impression in the world.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Swing Sisters by Karen Deans

CELEBRATING WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH WITH
SWING SISTERS:
THE STORY OF THE INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM
Written by Karen Deans
Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
(Holiday House; $16.95, Ages 4-8)

 

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In 2014 and 2015 readers have been treated to a number of fantastic narrative nonfiction picture books. Today’s review features yet another add-it-to-your-collection book, the story of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm as recounted in the impressive Swing Sisters.

Back in the very early 20th century, Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones established an orphanage called Piney Woods Country Life. It was here that he would ensure African American children could thrive and he did so not only by letting kids be kids, but also by having them do work at the school “to earn their keep.” Using this same philosophy, he organized a school band “just for girls,” to “help raise money for the school.” Anyone involved in the band had to consider their role as an additional job on top of school work and other responsibilities at Piney Woods.

The girls played a kind of music called swing. It was jazz music that brought people to their feet, “that music was filled with energy!” It also touched people from all walks of life because it made them feel alive and excited. The girls’ group, named The Sweethearts by Dr. Jones, eventually left Piney Woods to launch a career starting in Washington, D.C. They traveled by bus and performed all over America. Their hard work and dedication helped them hit the “big-time,” at one point playing to a crowd of thirty-five thousand at the Howard Theater in Washington!

By this point the band was known as The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and though America’s Sweethearts were consummate entertainers, they still encountered gender and race discrimination. The Jim Crow laws meant they couldn’t work together with white people, so for the most part they played “for black audiences.” Since their band was multi-racial, they were essentially breaking the law in certain states. There was even one occasion when white band members had to flee or risk arrest. I was happy to learn that during WWII, the USO “arranged a six-month tour for the band to travel to France, Belgium, and Germany.” But at the same time I’m disappointed that, despite having played for the troops abroad, the group’s USO tour is something we rarely hear about.

L.A. local Cepeda’s acrylic-and-oil artwork, with its retro woodcut look and expressiveness, is a bonus. He’s captured the era through a rainbow of colors that dazzle and delight. And, how lucky for us that Deans has chosen to shed light on this group of talented and committed female musicians who were throwing rocks at the glass ceiling way before other women thought it was even possible. Their days on the jazz circuit made inroads for countless women performers who would follow in their swinging footsteps. There’s not a dull sentence in this story thanks in part to the subject matter, but also owing a great deal to Deans’ talent. She’s brought the experience of being a trailblazing band to life in a richly crafted picture book that begs to be shared with early school goers.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here to read an enlightening interview with author Karen Deans.

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Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford
with illustrations by Raul Colón
(Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17.99, Ages 5-9)

Starred Reviews – Publishers Weekly, Booklist & School Library Journal

Leontyne-Price-cvr.jpgI chose to read and review author Carole Boston Weatherford’s nonfiction picture book biography, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, not only because I’m a HUGE Porgy and Bess fan, but also to honor a powerhouse performer during Black History Month.

Other African-American kids might not have persevered in light of the pervasive prejudice that existed when Leontyne Price was growing up in the deep south, but thankfully she did. Price was born in 1927, just one year after Melba Doretta Liston, another musical talent. She grew up in Laurel, Mississippi to a hard-working, supportive, and music-loving mother and father. At a young age Leontyne found herself moved by the music she heard:  “Singing along to her daddy James’s records and listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts.” Her parents even sold their phonograph so their daughter could get a piano along with lessons.

Like the opera singer Marian Anderson before her, Leontyne felt the music stir within her as she sang in the church choir. Soon she was heading off to college to pursue a teaching career since, in that era, the chances of becoming a successful black singer seemed out of reach. Surely her talent played a part in that educational opportunity as I read online that she received a scholarship to attend university in Ohio. Everything changed however, when her singing talents were heard by the college president who “convinced her to study voice instead.”

It didn’t take long for Leontyne’s star to begin rising when she attended Julliard and began earning acclaim for her singing. Her first break came when she appeared on Broadway in Porgy and Bess. She was also the “the first black singer to star at La Scala, Italy’s famed opera palace.” What I would have given to be in the audience at that performance! Eventually she landed a lead role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, breaking new ground for generations of African-American performers to come.

Weatherford points out in her Author’s Note that while Leontyne may have achieved great fame, she “still encountered racism in the United States. To her credit, her wondrous voice overcame the obstacles.” This wonderful biography chronicles the life of an iconic 20th century opera singer who followed her dream and ultimately fulfilled it. As an adult, I can recall watching Price on Ed Sullivan but having no idea of what her  challenges would have been to gain recognition and be on TV. In fact, Weatherford says, “Price was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the United States.” What a great story for kids to read who may take for granted the struggles African-Americans like Price faced in the past. Nowadays it may just take a click of a cell phone to get a video made and uploaded onto YouTube for anyone to see, when in the previous century it may have taken an entire lifetime. I like that young readers can use this book as a jumping off point for reading more about influential African-Americans mentioned such as Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves.

Raul Colón’s illustrations bring the same joy to this picture book that Price’s voice brought to anyone who heard it. From the opening spread, what looks like a rainbow of musical notes, takes on the form of a wave and flows through the book on pages when Leontyne sings. I also like the slight fuzziness of the artwork, as if we’re watching Price’s life unfold as seen on the early days of television broadcasting.

Before reading Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century I had no idea all the firsts this amazing woman achieved and I hope her accomplishments will inspire our 21st century children to keep reaching for the stars.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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