Saturday, May 18, 2019

More Picture Book Biographies

Picture book biographies are a wonderful way to introduce readers to people they may otherwise not discover, to learn about the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them. You'll notice, no doubt, that I've included a book about the creation of Central Park in this roundup. Somehow, it just seemed to belong here. These books are all excellent read alouds and are, I believe, inspiring for older readers (age 7+) who are just beginning to explore the wider world and who are also beginning to face some challenges of their own. I would recommend each one for classroom or home school libraries.
Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows,
illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Henry Holt & Company, 2019, 32 pages
Even before Raven Wilkinson, Misty Copeland, and other dancers of color, there was Janet Collins. Janet's story unfold in rhyming verse beginning with her childhood in New Orleans, where her mother made costumes to pay for her ballet lessons. Supported by her family, Janet became part of a popular trio of daredevil dancers billed as Three Shades of Brown. Later, while still in her teens, Janet would audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where her dancing skills were welcome but only if she would agree to lighten her skin. Not willing to do that, Janet eventually found a ballet class that welcomed her for who she was. With hard work and dedication, Janet became the first African American prima ballerina in 1951, dancing for the Metropolitan Opera. The rhyme, which echoes "The House that Jack Built" never loses it rhythm, seems to pare Janet Collins's accomplishments down a little too simply, but there is a detailed Author's Note that fills in the blanks. The soft, spare illustrations, created with Adobe Photoshop, also add to this biography, capturing the gentle ballet dance movements of this remarkable dancer and inspiring trailblazer. Back matter also includes resources for further exploration, and three websites relating to Janet Collins in particular and ballet in general. 

Waiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein, 
illustrated by London Ladd
Charlesbridge Publising, 2019, 32 pages
We always hear about Jackie Robinson and how he broke the color barrier in baseball playing baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But it took 12 more years, for the Boston Red Sox to finally put a black player on their team roster and that player was Elijah "Pumpsie" Green. And for the narrator of this book, Bernard, it couldn't happen soon enough. Bernard and his family are big Sox fans, but he wants to know why there are no black players on his favorite team and he knows that Pumpsie, a player in the minor leagues, is just who the Sox need. But, even as the Sox lose game after game in the summer 1959, they resist giving Pumpsie a chance. But when the Sox finally drop to last place, the decision is made to put Pumpsie into the game. Still, integrating the Sox wasn't easy. Bernard and his family had always faced prejudice and racism at the games in Fenway, and Pumpsie faces it on the field from Sox fans who want a white team only. Wittenstein does a great job of presenting Pumpsie Green's entry into the major leagues through the eyes of Bernard. His facts are accurate and the attitudes of both black and white fans are portrayed honestly. For example, Bernard and his family are enthusiastic Red Sox fans, but when he and his sister jump up and cheer for a player, they are told to "Sit down and Shut up!" When a cop comes over to see what's happening, he tells them: "You people need to learn how to behave." The first time Pumpsie takes the field at Fenway Park, he's greeted with a man shouting "Get that Negro off the field!" What a welcome! Ladd's realistic acrylic and pencil illustrations reflect the period perfectly, while capturing the enthusiasm of all fans, the feeling of pride among the black fans when they finally see a black player join the team, as well as the anger of white fans who are against integrating the Red Sox. Back matter includes an Author's Note and a list of Sources about race and baseball.

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry)
by Gary Golio, illustrated by Ed Young
Candlewick Press, 2019, 48 pages
Charlie Chaplin is such an iconic comedian of silent films, but kids today probably don't really know who he is. Which is why I was happy to see this picture book biography, introducing him to another generation. Charlie's career began on the streets of London, where he performed to earn a few pennies for food. At one point, he, his mum, and older brother Sydney landed in the poorhouse when she became sick, but they also worked and got themselves out of it. Charlie went back to entertaining, even joining a traveling theater troupe at age 9, where he quickly learned how to make people laugh. He also learned that everyone has a story, and how funny and sad, laughter and tears all go together. And these are the ideas he brought with him to America and Hollywood, were his character the Little Tramp was born in a prop room full of old dust clothes. This is a very kid friendly biography, written in clear, precise, accessible language, and accompanied by Ed Young's wonderfully striking collage and ink illustrations created using a variety of techniques. As you read, you'll notice a little silhouette of the Little Tramp on some of the pages at the bottom right hand corner. Flip the pages to see it walk Chaplin's characteristic Little Tramp walk. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in performing arts history, and/or Charlie Chaplin's life. Back matter includes an Afterword by the author, a list of Facts About Charlie Chaplin, and a list of Resources and Selected Books and Movies.

Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the solid-Body Electric Guitar
and Rocked the World
by Kim Tomsic, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Chronicle Books, 2019, 56 pages
One of my earliest memories is of my parents listening to music, and among their favorites was Les Paul. And yet, when he was young, Lester Polsfuss was told by a music teacher that he had no musical ability whatsoever. That didn't keep Lester away from music, however, not by a long shot. First, he made himself a crystal radio set out of ordinary household items to listen to music. Next, he bought himself a guitar with his paper route money, and taught himself to play, even landing a stint on the local radio station. That led to building a way to record himself, again using ordinary household items. When that worked, Lester devised a way to play guitar and harmonica at the same time. The inventions went on and on - a microphone, a guitar amplifier, and finally a solid body electric guitar. At 19, Lester shortened his name to Les Paul, formed the Les Paul Trio, and before long was playing with some of the jazz greats of the day - Louis Armstrong, Nat Kind Cole, Coleman Hawkins, even Bing Crosby. And Les Paul's popularity grew, why, he was even a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Les Paul and his inventions transformed popular music, and the most amazing fact is that he never learned to read music, playing by ear (probably thanks to that discouraging music teacher). Tomsic has written a wonderful introductory biography of this multi-talented innovative musician, focusing on his grit and perseverance to work through problems and come up with solutions. Helquist's colorful oil painted artwork successfully illustrates the points that Tomsic makes about Les Paul's life and work. I particularly liked the illustration showing how young Lester made the crystal radio set and microphone, adding a bit of STEM to this excellent biography. Back matter includes an extensive  note From the Author and a list of Works Cited.  

Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler
by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Aimée Sicuro
Harry N. Abrams, 2019, 40 pages
Brown introduces young readers to Helen Frankenthaler, who is best known for her big, bold Fields of Color paintings. Helen's love of color and freedom of expression began as a child, when she was encouraged by her parents to follow her instincts about art, even while her teachers were promoting q more realistic style of painting done within the lines. Sadly, at age 11, Helen's colorful inspiration failed her when her beloved father suddenly died, and though she kept painting, it was never the same as before since it never really expressed what she felt inside. Then, as an adult, Helen met Jackson Pollock, and she realized that if he could break the rules, so could she. But it took a trip to Nova Scotia to really free Helen's painting. And what Helen created were paintings seeped in colors and deep emotion - a technique called "soak stain" where the paint is allowed to seep into the canvas. Sicuro's watercolor illustrations are energetic and bright, and without trying to recreate the soak stain techniques, she nevertheless manages to capture the sense of Helen Frankenthaler's paintings. Back matter includes More About Helen Frankenthaler, a Timeline of her life, Author's Note, Quotes and Sources, and an extensive Select Bibliography. Also included is a Poured Paint/Soak-Stain Activity that kids can do to really understand how Helen's technique works, and the most important thing to remember for this activity - there are no rules!  

A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park
written and illustrated by Ashley Benham Yazdani
Candlewick Press, 2019, 40 pages
Yes, I've included a book about a park in the PB biography roundup. I grew up in Central Park, ice skating, picnicking, bike riding, and hanging out with friends, and it was nice to read about how it was created. As NYC grew, some people believed the need for green space had become apparent. So a design contest was held in 1857, and the winning design was one created by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted already knew every inch, every rock, and ever hillside in the area that had been set aside for the park. And I'm sorry to say that some of the land known as Seneca Village was seized from African Americans by the government using eminent domain for this project. Vaux and Olmsted were careful to create different sections of the park. There's the Lake for rowing and skating, the Ramble with its wild gardens, even a Children's District. They also made sure to include different kinds of structures, like the pagodas, band shells, and even a castle. There were 34 different bridges and archways build throughout the park. And four transverses to keep (and still keep) heavy traffic out of the park. This is a lovely homage to Central Park and the two men who designed it. Even if you don't know NYC or don't like it, there is still lots of interesting facts to culled from careful examination of each page of this book. Yazdani's colorful pencil and watercolor illustrations compliment and support the text, at times providing images to help readers understand specific ideas. Back matter includes information about both Olmstead and Vaux, as well as some interesting information bytes, including a challenge to see if readers found the 22 squirrels scattered throughout the book. There's also an Author's Note and a Bibliography.

Do you have a favorite picture book biography?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby

A novel about a father's mental illness and a daughter's desperate desire to take care of him, even as she wonders who will take care of her.

Since the day after she was born and her mother took off and left, it has always been just Fig and her dad. Fig's dad, Tim Arnold, had once been a celebrated musician/composer in New York City, but now he and Fig live on the Jersey shore. Though her dad loves Fig very much, he is subject to mood swings and erratic behavior. And attracted to the shoreline whenever there is a violent storm or hurricane, something that really scares Fig. But when he shows up at school looking for her, confused and disheveled, her teacher Miss Williams calls Child Protection and Permanency, or CP&P, and now they will be making visits to make sure Fig is safe and taken care of.

When a September hurricane rolls in, and her dad heads to the shore, Fig asks their new neighbor Mark Finzi, a construction worker, to help her find and bring him home. And it doesn't take long for Mark to become part of their lives, much to Fig's chagrin. The last thing she needs is someone knowing how things are at home.

Meanwhile, Miss Williams assigns Fig's class an art project to be displayed at the Fall Festival. Fig decides to research Vincent van Gogh, and learns that he had the same kind of erratic behavior as her dad, and soon begins to think of herself as her dad's Theo, van Gogh's brother. But it is Mark who gets him to a doctor, where he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and Mark who keeps her dad on his medication. But when her dad shows up at a Halloween party looking for Fig, it becomes clear that adjusting the medication will take time to get it just right.

Tim and Mark have been spending more and more time together, even as Fig's dad makes good progress, but when she walks in on a more-than-just-friends moment between the two men, she has more than a difficult time accepting their new relationship - but not for the reasons you might expect. Fig feels jealous that Mark is becoming the new Theo to her dad's van Gogh, a notion that her dad clearly rejects with a resounding "I'm not van Gogh," and she feels somewhat betrayed by her dad - why would he agree to doctors and medication for Mark, but not for Fig?

Everything comes crashing down on Fig when a hurricane approaches and she decides to try to experience it the way her dad always did - but luckily, Mark is a physically strong man. This does bring things to a head, and there is a somewhat happy ending to Fig's story, but with the caveat that mental illness can't be cured but it can be controlled, and help is never far away, if one is willing to ask for it.

When I started reading, I had expected a story about surviving a hurricane and I guess on some level that is exactly what I got. And I have to admit that the thing that drew me to this novel was the cover. It did remind me of van Gogh's Starry Night because of the bold swirls in the sky and the one swirl that looks like the sun setting. While I read I noticed that all the chapter titles cleverly refer to the names of van Gogh's paintings - and yes, I knew some but not all, so I looked them up.

For a middle grade novel, Hurricane Season has a lot going on in it. There's dad's mental illness and the difficulty of getting him into treatment and then determining what works best for him; there's his relationship with Mike, neither one of which ever had romantic feelings for men before; there's Fig's constant worry about her dad and her fear of being separated from him by CP&P; and there's Fig's own emerging sexuality. And then there are the hurricanes.

But Melleby deftly deals with everything she throws Fig's way so that the reader feels like it all unfolds organically. And she presents Tim Arnold's bipolar disorder as it is experienced by Fig in all its chaotic, scary reality - days of depression and staying in bed followed by manic days. And Fig's resentful reaction when people finally try to help - well-meaning Miss Williams, best friend Danny, the CP&P caseworker, and most of all, Mark.

But slowly, the reader sees Fig come to terms with the fact that she is just too young to deal with her father's mental illness, that the best she can do is love him and be there, that she is still a child and need to be one - to go to parties, to have crushes, to enjoy school and her friends - a gift she gets from Mark.

Hurricane Season is a difficult book to read at times but it is a book that kids will want to read if mental illness has ever touched their family, other kids will find themselves feeling empathy for Fig and all she has to deal with.

Hurricane Season is a deeply emotional story and I can't recommend it highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Algonquin Young Readers

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Cat Gladwell is an 11-year-old biracial girl who has way too much responsibility on her shoulders. Her African American dad passed away when she was younger, and now it's just herself, her mom, and younger brother, Chicken, a boy with special needs. Cat has always looked after Chicken while her mother, Amanda Gladwell, worked at home, writing a successful children's book series called Caterpillar & Chicken. Now she's committed to teaching a three-week Children's Literature class in Atlanta, Georgia and Cat can't wait for summer vacation and the trip from her home in California to Atlanta to see her old friend Rishi. It would be three weeks of just hanging out together and having fun the way they did when Rishi still live in San Francisco. There would even be time for him to play with Chicken. And some time to enjoy life would be nice for Cat, especially now that Chicken has taken to impulsively running off while they are out, something she has yet to tell her mother about.

If only Cat's mom had listened to her phone messages sooner, they would have learned that Rishi and his family were on their way to India because of family illness. What to do now? Mom, knowing she can't leave the kids alone in a strange city each day while she's teaching, she decides to take them to Gingerbread Island, North Carolina, her childhood home. Amanda hasn't had much to do with her parents, Macon and Lily Stone, so Cat and Chicken don't know anything about them.

At first, things are a bit awkward, except for Lily who is beside herself with excitement at finally meeting her grandkids. But there's so much tension between Amanda and her dad, that she leaves almost immediately, promising Cat and Chicken she will be back for weekends. Cat is delighted to be in her mother's old room, even if Chicken insists on sleeping with her, which is OK because being right on the ocean, she's really concerned about Chicken taking off.

But Lily knows just how to deal with Chicken and to two become fast friends instantly, something Cat has mixed feelings about. And Macon, whose a bit standoffish, just disappears into his workshop regularly. At the nearby playground, Cat and Chicken meet Harriet and her younger Neddie, along with John Harvey Dawson, who has taken an immediate dislike to Cat. She had also noticed the fishing trophies in her mother's room, and so when she hears about an upcoming fishing contest, one that John Harvey wins year after year, Cat decides to learn how to fish like her mother and beat him in the contest.

Naturally, mom's weekend visits don't happen, but gradually Macon warms to Cat and the two of them start walking the beach early in the morning. He even fixes and cleans up her mother's old bike for her to ride around the island with Harriet, the queen of fun. And though Cat seems to have broken through his reserved, she can't get him to teach her how to fish...or can't she?

I read Caterpillar Summer in the midst of the chaos that is my Kiddo visiting from China, so the gentle unfolding of this story was just what I needed. And I loved watching Cat grow in the realization that she has been given so much responsibility caring for Chicken and her mother's needs at the expense of her own needs and desires. And that Chicken and her mother have come to see that sacrifice as who Cat is for them.

Although Cat and Chicken are biracial, race is not a main theme in this story. Yes, they on a North Carolina island and there are a some instances of racist and bias attitudes, but for the most part, because their mother was so well-liked by the residents, the kids are just accepted as Macon and Lily's grands. And the point is made that Cat and Chicken know and have a strong relationship with their father's parents. What is also interesting is that the cause of the split between Amanda and Macon is her choice career, not her choice of husband.

Cat is a great realistic character. How many older girls are given too much responsibility for younger siblings? I know I was, and my brother certainly had his share of meltdowns, just as Chicken does. So I suspect a lot of readers will relate to Cat and her overly, almost territorial protectiveness of her brother.

Caterpillar Summer is a tender, poignant story about family, friendships, learning to ask for help when it's needed and, most importantly, learning to take care of oneself.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Friday, May 3, 2019

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

Life for 13-year-old Genesis Anderson isn't easy. Especially on the day Genesis finally comes home from school with a few girls she's been wanting to be friends with and finds her family's belongings laid out in the yard and the front door locked...evicted again. Once more, her dad has drunk and gambled the rent money away. And that means that Genesis and her mother will be staying with her overly critical (maternal) grandmother for a few days, until dad finds another place to live.

And as if dealing with an unreliable father, eviction and another new school aren't hard enough, Genesis must also contend with her own feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem. And she knows exactly what the reasons are for feeling that way - she keeps a list of all things she hates about herself, a list begun by some cruel kids in 5th grade in a school she had once attended, and to which she has since added more things. And now she's added reason #86: "Because she let them call her Charcoal, Eggplant, and Blackie" (pg. 7). Genesis has very dark skin just like her dad, and has been told so often that she's too black by people, including her father and grandmother, that she has internalize their negative attitude.

But now, dad has moved Genesis and her mother to a big house in a more upscale suburban  neighborhood and she's been enrolled in a fancier school than in the past. Things aren't quite a bad as in the other schools she attended and Genesis even begins to make some new friends, including shy Sophia, a white girl with her own school horror story. But it is her music teacher, Mrs. Hill, who believes in Genesis' musical talent and introduces her to such greats as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James, black women who learned to put their joy, longing, loneliness and soul into their incredibly beautiful eloquent  music. Can Genesis learn to use the negative voices that hold her back to finally begin to love herself for who she is?

Genesis Begins Again is a tough book to read. Genesis is so young and vulnerable, and people can be so cruel to her, and what makes it harder is the her story, in all its poignancy, is a story of so many girls just like her. At the heart of this novel is the issue around the colorism that Genesis faces every day at home, at school and within herself. She was supposed to take after her light-skinned mother and she is very aware of her father's disappointment that she didn't. Her grandmother, who intently dislikes Genesis' dad, introduces her the the brown bag test (a test he failed), and her belief that light-skin is a measure of superiority. Some of the conversations with her dad, grandmother, and even Sophia are heartbreaking to read. As are Genesis' attempts at trying to lighten her skin, all the more difficult to read knowing that they just won't work, but understanding her need to try. And try she does, with lemons, bleach, cream, even exfoliating her skin raw at one point.

I can't say I loved the book's ending, but I would still highly recommend it. I did wonder why Genesis's mother was not involved in the handling of the family's finances so that she didn't know the rent wasn't being paid, or why she didn't just take Genesis and leave.

On the whole, I thought Genesis Begins Again is a book that should be read by everyone regardless of their skin color. Sensitively written, it is an eyeopening window into the tough subject of colorism within the black community and racism in the white community, making it is a book that needed to be written for today's world.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, April 29, 2019

It's Monday! What are you reading?

It's Monday! What are you reading? - from picture books to YA is a kidlit meme hosted weekly by Jen at Teacher Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers. The purpose is to recap what you have read and/or reviewed and to plan out your reading for the upcoming week. Twitter #IMWAYR

I've been kinda keeping a low profile the last two weeks while my Kiddo was home, visiting from Qingdao, China, where she is a teacher. She goes back today, and I sure am going to miss her, even though I speak with her all the time, thanks to WeChat.

I read and reviewed Pop-Up Shakespeare by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which was a lot of fun and informative at the same time:

I read the following, but have not posted my review yet:

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
Atheneum BFYR, 2019, 400 pages

The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles,
illustrated by Dapo Adeola
Versify, 2019, 304 pages

White Rose by Kip Wilson
Versify, 2019, 368 pages

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn
Bloomsbury, 2019, 304 pages

Upcoming reads: lots of picture books

What are you reading?
Imagination Designs