Willems, Mo. (2019). Because. Illustrated by Amber Ren. 40 pgs. Hyperion, New York, NY.
A chain of contributions demonstrates the skill, collaboration, and community support required to stage a modern orchestral concert, which inspires a young concert goer to create her own music. It all begins with the music of a long dead composer, who inspired some modern day people to form an orchestra and put on a concert. A young girl attends the concert and, in turn, is inspired to create her own music. A series of causal effects depicts the diverse skill sets and tasks involved in staging a concert from conception to performance. The story pays equal respect to performers and the many behind-the-scenes people who contribute to an artistic event, including organizers, graphic designers, theater workers, and librarians. “Because the orchestra librarian had copies of the score - / the orchestra rehearsed”. The text pauses mid-story for two double-page spreads, which demonstrate, through a moment of anticipation then a burst of warm color and swirling strokes, the moment the lights dim and the music fills the theater. The second part of the book follows the young girl as she studies and writes music and matures into a career musician. Often, successful artists and musicians are portrayed as gifted or special - a description that alienates young readers from connecting with their experience. Because describes success as the result of hard work. “Because a man had practiced since he was a kid - / he was asked to join. // Because a woman studied night and day - / she, too, was asked to play.“ Willems even acknowledges that recognition is not guaranteed. “Over time, the woman became very good - because she worked very hard. / One night, her music was discovered - because she was also very lucky”. The characters are relatable because they are realistic. Readers will also see themselves visually reflected in colorful cartoon illustrations of people with various skin colors, and from many ancestries and cultures. The featured girl has dark hair and tan skin. As the classical music world has yet to be fully inclusive to musicians and concert goers of color, these illustrated choices are particularly meaningful. Because sheds light on an under-appreciated field while simultaneously celebrating the universal art of process.
In a society that devalues the arts by making it nearly impossible to make a living in the field, this simple, poetic picture book pays tribute to those who make it happen anyway.
White, Arisa and Laura Atkins. (2019). Biddy Mason Speaks Up. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. 112 pgs. Heyday, Berkeley, CA.
Grades 5 - 8
Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second title in the Fighting for Justice series, is intriguing, direct, and impossible to put down. The book tells the little known story of Biddy Mason, a 19th century midwife and herbalist who traveled Westward as an enslaved person, gained her freedom through the support of an active network of community members, and became an integral part of Los Angeles’s first Black community. Biddy’s story unfolds in increments throughout the book, each two to three-page episode setting the stage for a chapter packed with historical narrative, definitions, timelines, and photographs, which lend context to the biographical story. The storyline is told in verse - short, simple sentences set against a pastel background accompanied by vibrant digital illustrations by Laura Freeman (Hidden Figures, Harper Collins, 2018). Each informational section addresses a theme introduced in the story such as plantation life, the economy of slavery, resistance, homesteading, and community building. Native plants used in healing and midwifery are featured throughout the text, adding a naturalist component that enriches the context. Educators will find merit in the layout as well as the content. Text boxes, captions, primary sources, definitions, and timelines support information literacy and research skills. The interplay of verse and informational text appeals to multiple literacies and the variety of content will entice readers with many interests. Fans of graphic novels and Guiness record books will be drawn in by the plethora of photographs, facts, and text boxes. Acknowledgments, source notes, bibliography, credits, and an index solidify the book as a nonfiction source. Liberties taken in the verse are explained in the informational sections as based on research. Uncomfortable concepts like enslavement, profiteering, and rape are respectfully approached with age-appropriate clarity, which will prompt meaningful discussion. Among many defining attributes, the Fighting for Justice series (Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, 2017) forges a meaningful connection between history and present day society. Readers are encouraged to apply the meaning of each chapter to their own experience through thoughtful prompts like, “What are the barriers that keep you from speaking up?”. Back matter includes a section titled “Healing Your Community: From Biddy’s Day to Ours”. The series breaks the paradigm of traditional U.S. history texts for children, which propagate white privilege by omitting or editing historical fact. Details like using the term “enslaved person” in place of “slave” humanizes historical figures and pays respect to their descendants. The creators’ holistic approach to presenting history is inclusive, refreshing, and irresistible.
As a youth services professional, I appreciate the thoroughness of the content, the focus on a lesser-known figure and geographical location, and the interplay of story and documentation. The poetry accompanied by Freeman’s vibrant illustrations provide an artistic perspective of Biddy’s story that captures the intensity and emotion of her circumstances. Many readers will appreciate the opportunity to indulge in the pictures and storyline that precedes each informational section of the book. The contrast between prose and documentation allows readers to absorb information in multiple formats, which increases stamina and leads to deeper comprehension.
Photographs and illustrations dating from the 19th century are presented alongside legal documents and maps. Definitions in the sidebars provide a deeper understanding of highlighted key words within the narrative. Timelines connect Biddy’s experience with broader historical narratives like the abolition movement and the removal of Native Peoples. Through this smorgasbord of documentation, White and Atkins demonstrate the depth of evidence needed to fully understand the impact of slavery both in a historical context and in modern day society.
Immersing oneself in these pages of documentation is akin to visiting a museum in which each artifact brings us closer to a greater understanding about the topic and ourselves. Not only does the book inform, it also questions. Through thoughtful, well-placed prompts, the authors invite readers to interact with the information by making a personal connection. In chapter seven, we learn that despite a California state law that forbids slavery, freedom for people of color was rarely enforced and slave owners continued to hold people captive. It was only through the efforts of Black community members and advocates that enslaved people eventually gained freedom. A speech bubble in this chapter asks, “how can you and your friends support one another and those facing injustice?”. Such questions teach reflection, a practice that will prove invaluable as young readers move forward academically, and become thinking members of their communities. When learning is personal, so is it memorable.
The focus on Biddy Mason as the protagonist further sets the book apart from the myriad of historical texts for middle-grade readers. By delegating the portrayal of slavery in America to a relatively small cast of historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, the literary world has limited the scope of its repercussions. Biddy’s story suggests that she is but one of millions whose story has been omitted if not erased from the American narrative. I found myself asking the question, “Why have I not heard this story?” and contemplating how many more stories I may have been denied by a traditional American education. Of particular interest is the abundance of information on California as a new state. The role of Black residents, Native Peoples, and Mexican-Americans played in its rapid development is too-often under-stated by traditional history texts that uphold settlers of European descent as its primary characters. Biddy’s creators present an inclusive history in which we learn of Mexican American vaqueros and Black cowboys, Afro-Mexican civic leaders, and the area’s first people, the Tongva. Readers of every age will come away from Biddy Mason Speaks Up with an enriched perspective about history and a better understanding of its impact on our society today.
As a parent, I thank White and Atkins from the bottom of my heart for offering a gateway and guide for talking truthfully with my children about the world in which we live. My eleven-year-old son and I enjoy reading together and the right books lead to powerful conversations I struggle to initiate otherwise. Zetta Elliot’s Bird (2008, Lee & Low) helped us talk about addiction. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993, Double Day) led to conversations about constructs and conformity. Biddy Mason invites us to confront white supremacy, and to explore equality and feminism together in a meaningful way. I answered my son’s questions from my heart, but I used the information in the book as a guide and a tool. Prompts like “Who is resisting injustice today, and what can you do to support them?” led to discussions about campaigns like Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement. We talked about bullying. We talked about sexual harassment. We talked about white supremacy. It wasn’t so much that we read the book, as we experienced the book together.
Biddy Mason Speaks Up invites us to be vulnerable and to discuss our society - past and present - with an open mind and an open heart. Many historical books for middle grade readers take a colonialist approach to educating, attempting to sooth white guilt by offering excuses or incomplete explanations for the ugliness of the past. Or by simply writing history off as being in the past. It’s done, it’s over, let’s move on. Rather than erecting a wall between past and present, White and Atkins immerse readers in the naked truth with simple but poignant explanations. Within this place of honesty and vulnerability, they invite readers to connect this past with their own reality.
A text box titled “Power Discussed” asks us to reflect on how we see power in our community and explores the word itself and permutations like institutional power, collective power, and empowerment. Chapter three explores the economy of slavery, dispelling the common textbook myth that the North was unanimously against it.
"The system of slavery was woven into all the parts of the United States, and people across the country benefited from it. Slave owners made money from the work of enslaved people. Slave traders made money from the people they sold. Owners of ships and railroads made money trafficking humans across water and land. Enslaved people built roads, dams, homes, and public buildings. The United States became a wealthy, prosperous country because of the labor of enslaved people" (p. 20).
Chapter three also provides an honest look at slavery and genealogy, a topic integral to Biddy’s story. The inset explains that slavery was matrilineal, meaning that if a mother was enslaved, her child was enslaved. “Enslaved women could sometimes partner and have children with enslaved men. Masters could also rape enslaved women. Enslaved people did not have a choice about how their bodies were used, since they were seen as property” (p. 21). A supplemental text box defines rape as “When one person forces a sexual act on another person who does not want it or who is unable to give consent” (p. 21). Direct explanations like these encourage questions and link the atrocities of the past with current campaigns for equality and justice. The Fighting for Justice books explain to our children why things aren’t fair. But they also uplift and empower, proving through their protagonists that ordinary people can speak up.
Biddy Mason Speaks Up invites young readers to join a conversation, to reflect, and to make connections. It is powerful in its intimacy and memorable for its honesty. Most of all, the book empowers. The Fighting for Justice series lays a foundation of knowledge and provides the questions that will fuel the change makers of tomorrow.
Vaswani, Neela. This is my eye: A New York story. Candlewick, 08/2018. 56pp. $16.99. 978-0-7636-7616-2.
Preschool - Grade 3
View the world through the lens of a young New York City girl. Colorful, full page photographs capture the essence of urban living as seen through the eyes of a child. Buildings, bridges, flowers, street art, produce, and people are celebrated in this unique collection of images bursting with positive energy. A bi-racial girl narrates the compelling flow of photos with insightful commentary. We are introduced to her African American father and her Asian American mother, whom our character photographs laughing together. Large, simple text - just a few words per page - captions the images and invites discussion. An image of raindrops on a window-pane is accompanied by “Rainy days have polkadots”. A photo of bright green plants pushing through cracks in dull gray pavement is supported by “Little things grow in little spaces”. Though the book portrays New York City, the images are evocative of life in any city. An author’s note encourages readers to capture their own story through photographs. The book would make a unique addition to storytime.
image credit: Macmillan Publishing
Sheinkin, Steve. Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, 2017. 288 pages. Tr. $19.99, ISBN: 9781596439542
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team represents author Steve Sheinkin’s numerous contributions to the youth nonfiction genre. His narrative nonfiction titles are exceptionally written and universally intriguing to many audiences. His books for young adults have won a multitude of awards including the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Sibert, and the Newbery Honor. Sheinkin’s greatest skill as a writer is his ability to make complex historical subjects accessible and interesting to a wide audience. Information is organized in a fascinating story arc that encompasses a holistic perspective on the topic. Short chapters and simple, focused sentences make Sheinkin’s text suitable for middle grade readers yet adults enjoy the structure and detail he employs. Every reader appreciates the magnitude of photographs, which enhance the text throughout each book.
HOWEVER, in the case of Undefeated, particularly the subject of Indian boarding schools, Sheinkin may have written under the spell that many white writers with the best of intentions often do. According to multi-cultural children's literature advocate Beverly Slapin, he got it wrong. Other reviewers felt he did the research, but didn't write to the depth he has shown in previous titles. In other words, he dumbed down the stuff that reflects badly on a white audience.
Undefeated:Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team explores the unexpectedly fascinating history of American football (I am not a fan of the game but I couldn’t put this book down). As readers learn, the game as we know it in modern times, would not exist had it not been for the events surrounding the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and its scrappy team. Carlisle was one of the first boarding schools for young Indians, designed to “kill the Indian, save the man”. In other words, Indian boarding schools were meant to eliminate the native language and culture of the native peoples who had survived the complete upheaval of their homes and the colonization of the white man in America. This history, along with details about Thorpe's life (including his name) is where Sheinkin's research may fall short, according to Slapin. Rather than summarize the thorough critique of the book laid out by Slapin, I encourage readers to consider her points directly. Please read Slapin's review here.
I feel I still have more research to do in order to form an educated, well-informed decision about Undefeated. I cannot blindly accept the opinions of Beverly Slapin any more than I can blindly trust the interpretation of Steve Sheinkin. Slapin, sums up her lengthy review with "despite the copious research that Sheinkin conducted for this book (including 25 pages of source notes and six pages of works cited), his cultural filter as an outsider impedes his ability to tell the real story," (2017, conclusion) Incidentally, Slapin is herself an "ousider". It should be noted that despite her tireless efforts to promote inclusion and multi-cultural education, the particular review in question does not contain source notes. While the Slapin review is published on Debbie Reese's website American Indians in Children's Literature, Debbie Reese herself did not publish a review or commentary about the book as of yet, nor have I yet to find a review by a Native Person.
There is also the argument, often in play when discussing narrative non-fiction, that Sheinkin thoroughly researched his topic but chose to omit or simplify certain details in order to present a particular focus or create a narrative accessible to a young audience. Indeed, Carvell Wallace wrote in his review for the New York Times, "It’s hard to know which of Thorpe’s exploits are accurately remembered and which have become embellished into tall tales over time, but for the modern young reader, Sheinkin’s telling holds the kind of hearty inspiration that Old West tales used to nurture in the kids of earlier eras. Thorpe’s greatness may be aspirational, but Sheinkin’s brisk and forthright delivery makes it seem entirely possible" (2017). It is this exactly this type of mythological national narrative that critics like Beverly Slapin take offense with: the reinterpretation of historical events as a means of defending and upholding the goodness of white people in the present. A discussion of the book on the blog Reading While White comments on Sheinkin's deliberate choice to gloss over the harshest realities of Indian boarding schools: "Sheinkin is such a great writer, surely he could have included more analysis of this complex and painful part of history without it turning his audience off" (Reading While White, 2017). The discussion panel also points out that they read the book as non-Native critics.
I admit that I was very excited about Undefeated and had initially written a glowing review. The book is fascinating and entertaining. Only after a wise professor of children's literature pointed out its reported flaws did I research further perspectives. I am embarrassed to say that I have a long way to go in regards to judging books by the authority of their authors as opposed to the popularity of their authors. One of the reasons I wish to be a librarian is to question and counter white supremacy and the lack of inclusion of people of color in publishing and literature. AND YET . . . I did not question Sheinkin's authority to interpret the history of Jim Thorpe and the devastating issues that are the setting for his story. I am a regular visitor to Debbie Reese's website American Indians in Children's Literature and have applied her criteria for authenticity to research papers and reviews. AND YET . . . I did not question Sheinkin's interpretation of history. This goes to show how easy it is to fall back into the naivety I hope to overcome as a librarian. I will keep practicing.
Bloom, S., Horning, K.T., Schlieman, M. (March 21, 2017). Reviewing while white: Undefeated [blog post]. Reading While White. Retrieved from http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2017/03/reviewing-while-white-undefeated.html
Slapin, B. (March 28, 2017). Beverly Slapin's review of Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School's Football Team [blog post]. American Indians in Children's Literature. Retrieved from https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/search?q=sheinkin
Tomeo, Melba. (July12, 2017). Personal correspondence.
Wallace, C. (January 13, 2017). Jim Thorpe, Native American, and his game-changing football team [review]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/books/review/undefeated-jim-thorpe-steve-sheinkin.html
credit to Macmillan Publishers
Iturbe, Antonio. The Librarian of Auschwitz. Henry Holt, 2017. 432 pages. Tr. $19.99, ISBN: 9781627796187
Ages: 13 - Adult
In 1944, Dita Adlerova, along with her mother and father and countless Jewish citizens, were transferred from the Terezín ghetto in Prague to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, they were imprisoned in the ‘family camp’ run by the infamous Dr. Mengele. The family camp, a propaganda front the Nazis constructed in order to convince international observers that Auschwitz was merely an internment camp and not a factory designed to exterminate the Jewish race, became a haven for over 500 children, most of whom were exterminated soon after its closing. During its existence, SS officers were oblivious to the fact that the German-Jewish prisoner Alfred Hirsch secretly directed a school in Family Block 31. Fredy, as Hirsch was known, tasked 14-year-old Dita with the job of block librarian. She was responsible for maintaining and concealing eight print books – contraband in Auschwitz – and six ‘living’ books – teachers who told stories by heart. Terrified but courageous, Dita was determined to keep hope alive through a few precious stories, through it meant risking her life. Originally published in Spain (2012, Editorial Planeta), this engrossing tale captures one of the darkest times in history through strait-forward descriptions and poignant prose. Present tense lends a sense of urgency and incites a forward pace to the plot. Memories and flashbacks, which enrich character identities, are recounted in past tense. Third person narrative adds sophistication. Characters are richly developed and their backstories delve into many aspects of the Holocaust including details of conditions inside Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, and Jewish life before and after the war. The story is based on the real life of Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus. This important text offers a deep and very human insight into one of history’s darkest episodes.
Dita Adlerova Kraus met her future husband Otto (Ota) Kraus in the family block of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he worked as a teacher. They eventually emigrated to Isreal. Otto Kraus wrote book titled The Painted Wall, which tells the true story of the 500 children who attended the secret school in the family camp of Auschwitz.
image credit to Chronicle Books
Powell, Patricia Hruby. Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker. Pictures by Christian Robinson. Chronicle Books, 2014. 104 pages. Tr. $17.99, ISBN: 9781452103143
Extensively researched by both author and illustrator, Josephine tells the enthralling life story of African American performer and activist Josephine Baker. From the segregated slums of St. Louis, Baker rose to fame first in the black vaudeville circuit, then on Broadway. Suppressed by racism in American, Baker was embraced and adored in Paris, where she established herself as a superstar. Baker spent her life shattering glass ceilings and fighting for a world in which all races could live in harmony.
This fascinating biography is conveyed through poetic free verse that emulates Baker’s passion for music, dance, and expression. The illustrations, painted in rich acrylic, take their cue as much from Josephine’s exuberant personality as from the text. Short quotes from Josephine herself, obtained from sources that are cited in the endpapers, punctuate the text and make the story come alive. Back matter includes notes from the author and illustrator, further reading, and quotation sources.
Baker is objectively portrayed as a multi-dimensional character with both strengths and flaws. Baker’s history addresses topics like segregation, racism, and war and places the biography in a context for school curriculums. Readers of all ages will become immersed in this beautiful book in which the words, pictures, and subject matter are equally vibrant.
Galing, Ed. Tony. Illustrated by Erin Stead. Roaring Brook Press, 2017.  pages. Tr. $16.99. ISBN: 978-1-62672-308-5
Age Range: 4 - 9
Tony, a strong but gentle horse, and his driver deliver milk, eggs, and butter in the early morning hours. The late Ed Galing’s poem, combined with the incomparable artwork of Erin Stead, capture a beautiful moment, a memory, from another age. “Tony was all white/ large, sturdy,/ with wide gentle eyes/ and a ton of love.” The poem unfolds quietly, offering only a few words or lines set far to one side of each two-page spread, a choice that encourages the reader to pause and allows the pictures to fill the space. Tony and his pre-dawn world are tenderly rendered in pencil with foggy green and gold undertones, achieved through Gomuban monoprinting. Some spreads are filled with a background of mottled green ink while others are mostly cream with just a smudge of gold under the pencil drawing. This contrast in light, combined with the distance between drawings and text, draws readers into the moment and evokes a sense of remembering. Stead (A Sick Day for Amos McGee, 2010), conveys Tony’s gentle demeanor through a portrait-like perspective and subtle yet precise details. Even the velum title page that, when turned, lifts away the bibliographic information to reveal the single first word of the poem – “Tony” – sets the stage and tells the reader that this story will be special.