Monday, May 14, 2018

Picture Book Biographies we loved reading

My young readers and I have been spending some time reading, studying, and enjoying picture book biographies. I have to confess that along with them, I have learned lots of interesting information, even about people I was pretty familiar with. We all agreed that it's always nice to learn new things. You will probably notice that this is a rather eclectic group of picture book biographies for older readers. That's because we were actually doing a genre study and these are the biographies they picked out for it.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, 
illustrated by London Ladd
Lee & Low Books, 2018, 40 pages
This is the story of an enslaved woman, Lilly Ann Eliza Cox, who learned to read and write while playing school with the children in the house where she worked in Virginia, where it wasn't illegal for slaves to read and write. Lilly Ann, in turn, secretly began to teach other enslaved children to read and write at night in the woods. When she is sold to a cotton plantation owner in Mississippi, Lilly Ann was put to work in the field, picking cotton and where it was illegal for slaves to know how to read and write. Risking a punishment of 39 lashes, Lilly Ann decided to reopen her night school in the woods and began teaching again, until she was caught seven years later. But while reading and writing were illegal, there was no law against one enslaved person teaching another, and neither Lilly Ann nor her students were punished. Once again, Lilly Ann opened her school and continued teaching for many years after. In addition, Lilly Ann had 'married' a man named Oliver Granderson and they had three children together. It was only after the Civil War that Lilly Ann and Oliver could be married legally.

Midnight Teacher is a beautifully rendered work of historical fiction based on the actual life of Lilly Ann Granderson. Lilly Ann's story is certainly one of courage, persistence, and even resistance during a period in this country's history when enslaved people were expected to be quiet, obedient, and ignorant. I think the real beauty of Lilly Ann's legacy is that the students she taught used their ability to read and write forward to teach others these important skills.

The realistic acrylic and colored pencil illustrations really reflect the story and capture the many different events in Lilly Ann's life so well. Be sure to read the Afterword for more information about Lilly Ann and her amazing life and legacy. A list of Selected References is also included in the back matter.

This is a book that should be in every home, classroom, and home schooling situation. A useful Teacher's Guide has been provided by the publisher, Lee & Low Books and can be downloaded HERE.

Silent Days, Silent Dreams written and illustrated by Allen Say
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2017, 64 pages
One of the great things about picture books for older readers is that they can make all kinds of interesting information easily accessible and available for them. Such is the case of this fictionalized biography of artist James Castle. Told from the point of view of James' nephew, Robert "Bob" Beach, he tell us that his uncle was born two months premature and profoundly deaf in 1899. Right from the start, James was afraid of movement, but fascinated by stationary things, particularly pictures. As he got older, James was compelled to drew, but lacking any art supplies, he would collect paper from the trash and using burnt matchsticks for create his pictures. Sadly, it didn't take long for people to start calling him Dummy or Crazy Jimmy, and whenever he would shriek in frustration, his father would hit him and lock him in the attic.

At age 10, James was sent to the Idaho School for the Deaf, where he never learned to read or write, but spent as much time as he could in the library or drawing. Sent home after 5 years, James continued to draw the world as he experienced it, often using nothing more than soot and spit. James made thousands to drawings while living in outbuilding on this family's various homes, but each time they moved, the drawings were left behind. Eventually, thanks to his nephew Bob, James's work came to the attention of an art teacher and an exhibition was arranged, followed by gallery shows and the sale of his drawings gave him some financial security.

This is probably one of the saddest, most poignant biographies I've ever read. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like inside James Castle's head. Never having heard anyone speak, he had no other way to express himself except through his art, yet his compulsion to keep drawing in the face of abuse, lack of materials, and a world that didn't understand him speaks volumes about the power of art as a means of expression. Castle's style, big, blocky surreal images, people with no faces, and an alphabet of his own invention, is reproduced by Say in this biography, who used the same kinds of materials Castle had at his disposal. Illustrations that reflect Castle's life not his art are done in watercolor using the same style, as if to suggest that was how James perhaps saw the world. There is some speculation that James Castle, in addition to being profoundly deaf, might also have been dyslexic.

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India and a Hidden World of Art 
by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Candlewick Press, 2018, 48 pages
Nek Chand loved living in his village of Berian Kalan in the Punjab region of India before the Partition of 1947. He especially loved listening to the ancient stories that were always being told there by the whole community. As a child, Nek began to build a world of his own based on the stories he heard along the river back, using rocks, sticks, and other materials found in nature. But, in 1947, when Punjab was split into two countries, India and Pakistan, Nek and his family were forced to leave their home - they were Hindu and their village was now in Muslim Pakistan. Fleeing at night, they walked for 24 days to the new Indian border.

The family traveled to the newly created city of Chandigarh, where Nek found work as a government road inspector, but he never felt at home in this new modern city. When he discovered a few acres of scrubland in northern Chandigarh, he began clearing it away and bringing all kinds of materials he might need to create a new world of his own in miniature again. After seven years of secretly collecting, Nek was ready to begin building.

Nek managed to keep is kingdom a secret for 15 years, until one day, the government began clearing the area and found his secret. They wanted it all destroyed, including the small building Nek had illegally been living in, but then the people of Chandigarh heard about what he had built and began to visit by the thousands. Nek's kingdom made everyone happy, and soon stories were once again being told. Luckily, they managed to convince the government not to destroy Nek's creation, and instead provided protection for this incredible piece of folk art.

 This is a beautifully written, fascinating story of how one man's love of his childhood home drove him to turn his nostalgia into a kingdom made up of recycled materials and the stories he had heard as a child. The lyrical text compliments the folk art style watercolor and gouache illustrations, each capturing those aspects of India that Nek loved and the disruption due to the Partition. Nek's story is topped off with a four page pull-out spread of photographs of just some of the parts of the real secret kingdom. Included in the back matter is an Author's Note describing more about Nek, his childhood dream, and what has become of his kingdom, as well as an extensive bibliography. This is an enchanting biography of a true folk artist.

Listen: How Pete Seeger Got American Singing by Leda Schubert, 
pictures by Raúl Colón
Roaring Brook Press, 2017, 40 pages 5-9
I was introduced to Pete Seeger by my Welsh father, who loved American folk music, and I've never stopped listening to him. In her biography of this great American folk singer and activist, Leda Schubert really captures the commitment Pete Seeger had to his music, his fan, and his political beliefs. She deftly shows that while the country was willing to participate by singing along with him, and the two musical groups he was a member of (the Almanacs and the Weavers), it was his politics that got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee, who questioned whether or not he was a true American (which made me wonder if they had ever listened to the words of "This Land is Your Land"). Pete was indicted and blacklisted by the committee, and work really dried up for him for four years before his conviction was overturned. Pete went right back to singing and activism, joining the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to fight racism, and later, protesting the Vietnam Wars, and always emphasizing the importance of people's participation. Woven into Pete Seeger's life story are the names of the songs he wrote at each juncture, songs were have been singing ever since in school, in camp, and inside our heads after hearing them played somewhere, which I consider a testament to their appeal.

Schubert includes one of Pete's passions that many people don't know much about and that was his love for the Hudson River and his efforts to clean up the pollutions caused by years of chemical waster dumping in it. Now, anyone who has recently driven over the Tappen Zee Bridge or the Bear Mountain Bridge can readily see how his efforts have paid off.

Raúl Colón's soft, textured watercolor and colored pencil illustrations really capture the spirit of Pete Seeger's beliefs and music, and the power they held for his audiences wherever he played. Schubert writes that Pete "cared about justice, peace, equality, and  people everywhere" and what could be more inspiring for young readers, especially in today's world.

Back matter includes an Author's Note, a Timeline of Pete's life, Endnotes, a Selected Bibliography, a list of books Pete wrote for children, and recommended recordings. Sadly, my dad's old crackly Pete Seeger 78 RPM records didn't survive they were played so much, but that's OK, I know all the words by heart and have passed them on to my Kiddo and my young readers.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing by Kay A. Haring, 
illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Dial BFYR, 2017, 40 pages 5-8

Even though this book is a little young for my readers, I picked it because I have a real soft spot for Keith Haring. I was in college, living on East 7th Street in the East Village when Keith hit the streets of NYC with his art. And it was everywhere. Each morning I would leave for school and there would be new Keith Haring art wherever you looked. Now, Keith's younger sister Kay has written a moving biography about here brother's too-short life. 

Even as a boy, Keith drew everywhere - on paper, on tests, in his clubhouse, and in his room as a teenage while listening to loud music. In high school, after winning first prize for his art, he was offered money by someone who wanted to buy the winning drawing. Keith refused the money and told the person they could just have it. That's who he was - someone who felt everyone should be able to enjoy his art - a belief that never wavered when he went to art school in Pittsburgh, and later, when he moved to New York City in 1980. After drawing his signature figures all over the city - on sidewalks in chalk, on garbage cans in paint, on discarded furniture, on the sides of buildings and in subway stations - Keith began to be noticed and his art became a world wide phenomena.

It's clear his sister really loved her brother very much and knew him well. The repetition of "he just kept drawing" almost begins to feel like an understatement when you look at the illustrations depicting the preponderance of his art on so many different surfaces. I loved Robert Neubecker's complimentary illustrations of Keith's life, done without imitating his style, but keeping to the same kind of humor and lightness found in Keith's art (and yes, Mr. Neubecker, I also have fond memories of the 1980s downtown art scene).

The 1980s was indeed an exciting time in NYC, but it was also a time of tragedy with the AIDS epidemic that took so many creative people. So, be sure to read the Author's Note and additional information in the About Keith Haring section to learn about his early death from AIDS-related complications and the Keith Haring Foundation he established in 1989. This pat of Keith Haring's life was difficult to explain to my young readers, who had a hard time grasping the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic. 

When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel by G. Neri, 
illustrated by David Litchfield
Candlewick Press, 2018, 48 pages 9-12
Using the titles of songs that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel wrote and recorded together, and written to look like poetry or the lyrics to songs, G. Neri looks at the friendship of these two favorites who couldn't be more different from each other. Sure, both grew up in middle class Jewish homes in Kew Gardens, Queen, both were looking for a friend, and both loved music, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. And they didn't really know each other until they were cast in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. Artie had perfect pitch and was a musical natural, Paul wanted to sing and had to work at learning how to play the guitar. But they stuck together and eventually ended up on American Bandstand, and the singing team of Simon and Garfunkel was born.

But even as things were looking up though they were still in high school, Paul decided to record a solo record and their harmonic friendship came to an end when Artie found out. There was no Simon and Garfunkel as they both went off to college - Artie to Columbia University, Paul to Queens College. It was the 1960s by then, and the times they were a changin'. Artie headed to Berkeley, California, Paul to Europe.

Three years later, the pair met again while walking across the 59th Street bridge and began talking again. Pretty soon, they're singing again, cutting an  album called Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., which includes the song "The Sound of Silence".  It was at first a failure, until people start requesting it on the radio and it climbed to the top of the pop charts, the first of many.

As much of a fan as I've always been, I knew nothing about the personal lives of Simon and Garfunkel and their early career together, so this book was basically new information for me, as it was for my young readers. I had no idea this duo had so many ups and downs to it. Perhaps because of the three column format, it felt like Neri was able to include a lot more information than most PB bios, particularly about what was happening musically from the late 1950s onward.

Litchfield's digitally created illustrations are perfectly in tune with this biography. What they are a duo, Paul and Artie are illustrated together, and when they have split up, they are depicted on opposite pages with the text in between. The illustrations are colorful and especially detailed in their slightly oversized book, and my young readers had fun combing over them.

Luckily, I have a Simon and Garfunkel playlist that I often listen to so I was able to play it for the kids, most of whom never heard of them before. I'm not sure now what they liked better - the book, the music, or maybe both equally.

We also studied another Picture Book Biographies that were written in verse, but that's for another day soon.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small

Behind many of those nondescript smaller apartment buildings in NYC that are now fast disappearing is a real surprise. The two back ground floor apartments have really nice sized garden out their back door. A friend of mine has her office in one of those buildings on the Upper East Side, and this weekend, I spent some time going to garden centers in Connecticut and helping her pick out some new plants for her backyard garden.
This isn't my friend's building, but it is where
Louise Fitzhugh wrote Harriet the Spy in one of those back apartments with a garden
When I got home, I pulled out my copy of The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and reread it with a great deal of pleasure. The story unfolds in a series of letters written by young Lydia Grace Finch, beginning in August 1935, when the depression was still impacting so many people in the world, including her family. Lydia Grace is leaving the country and going to live temporarily with her Uncle Jim in the city, and the first letter is addressed to him, in which she tells him three things about herself: 1- she knows a lot about gardening but not baking; 2- she would like to learn to bake, but is there any place to plant seeds?; 3- she likes to be called Lydia Grace. Packed in her suitcase, along with her clothes, are envelopes full of seeds, including marigold, cosmos, and my personal favorite zinnia. Uncle Jim is a baker, lives in an apartment over the bakery, and, Lydia Grace soon discovers, he never smiles.

In letters to her parents and her grandmother, Lydia Grace writes about everything that is going on with her in the city. In the bakery, she meets Emma and Ed Beech, Uncle Jim's friends who also work for him. Emma teaches Lydia Grace to knead bread and in exchange, she teaches Emma the Latin names of flowers. As the spring of 1936 approaches, Lydia Grace begins planting in cracked teacups, tubs, and boxes growing the seeds she brought with her and any that she is sent from home. Soon, she is growing flowers, lettuce, radishes, and onions in window boxes and on the fire escape, transforming their nondescript building into a bright, colorful, flourishing vertical garden.
But it is in the secret place (the unused roof) that Lydia Grace discovers where she really shows her gardening skills, creating a place of beauty in the midst of the city. She plants and tends her rooftop garden in secret, finally surprising Uncle Jim on the Fourth of July. But can she get to Uncle Jim to finally smile?
Maybe. A few days after the July 4th surprise, Uncle Jim has one of his own when he closes the bakery for half a day and surprises Lydia Grace with a beautiful cake covered in icing flowers. Lydia Grace is certain that cake is worth at least 1,000 smiles. What do you think?

The Gardener always makes me so happy whenever I read it. An epistolary story told in short letters written by Lydia Grace, but with enough information to know what was included in the responses she received. What makes this an especially wonderful picture book, besides its feel good story, is the way the illustrations track the story so well even as they add dimension to it. Small's watercolors increase in color as Lydia Grace's plantings grow and bloom. But look closely at each illustration for little details that add to the story, like the little gray cat in every city picture, the first dollar Uncle Jim made framed under the picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the envelopes full of seeds floating out of Lydia Grace's suitcase, and the changing look on faces of everyone as the flowers bloom, and the same scowl on Uncle Jim's face, no matter what is happening. No wonder David Small won the 1998 Caldecott Award. Lydia Grace spent one year in the city and really made a difference in the lives of Uncle Jim, Emma and Ed, and their customers and neighbors. What an inspiring story for young readers to enjoy!

This book is recommend for everyone😊
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Life holds much promise for 12 year-old Amal. Living in a small Punjabi village in Pakistan, she dreams of going to college with her best friend Hafsa and becoming a teacher. Amal is the eldest of four daughters, and now that her mother is pregnant, everyone is hoping this baby will be the longed-for son. But when the new baby turns out to be another girl, and her mother goes into a deep depression because of it, Amal is taken out of school to help care for the house and her sisters.

Disappointed, Amal does her best until one day at the market she insults Jawad Sahib, son of the village's powerful landlord, Khan Sahib. Jawad is known by everyone as a cruel and vindictive man, a money lender who makes sure no debt can ever be paid off. Already owing the Khan's money, Amal's father tells her life is unfair, and now, there will be a price to pay for her insult, even though the circumstances surrounding it was not her fault. The price is high - Jawad Sahib demands that Amal work in the Khan estate as a servant, allowed to visit her parents only twice a year. Her father tells her that she will only be there for a month or two, just until he gets enough money to get her back.

Luckily for Amal, she is put to work taking care of Jawad's mother, Nasreen Baji, a woman much kinder than her son. As time goes by, it becomes clear to Amal that she will be working at the Khan estate for much longer than her father said. He is being charged room and board for her, guaranteeing his debt can never be paid back. Her saving grace is the large library that no one seems to use. Amal happily begins sneaking books back to her room to read and when word gets out that she can read and write, she begins to teach one of the other servants. 

Meanwhile, Khan Sabib, Nasreem Baji's husband, and Jawad's father is running for political office and never home. To further his chances of being elected, he had a literacy center built in Amal's village. After it opens, no one will go there, so Amal is sent once a week for show. Since Amal can already read and write, the teacher begins teaching her how computers work. Knowledge is power and eventually Amal learns enough about what the Khan family is up to to set things in motion that could cause their downfall.

Amal Unbound is narrated in the first person by Amal, whose observations and direct language really help the reader understand her circumstances as an indentured servant and how easily it happened, a situation many young readers may not be aware of. Understanding that Amal lives in a society where girls still tend to be marginalized, and obedience is demanded by men, in this novel particularly by her father and Jawad Sahib, makes Amal's story that much more important. 

But so does the fact that Amal refuses to simply accept her fate, risking punishment for borrowing books from the Khan's library so that she doesn't fall behind is testament to how strong her dreams of college and becoming a teacher are.

Amal Unbound is an incredibly readable coming-of-age book, and Amal a strong, relatable, and sympathetic character, who will no doubt inspire young readers. I found that, ironically, it is in the acceptance of her circumstances, the knowledge that she will never go back to her family again, and will probably live out her days as a servant to the Khan family that proves just how much strength Amal has and it becomes a turning pointing for her, one that is fed by hope.

Do read the Author's Note at the back of the book for more information about the issue of indentured servitude and how wide-spread it really is.

Amal Unbound will be available on May 8, 2018 and I can't recommend it highly enough.

This book is recommend for readers age 10+
This was an ARC received from the publisher.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

For Jerome Rogers, living in his low-income Chicago neighborhood can be dangerous, but so can going to middle school. There, Jerome is the target of three bullies, Eddie, Snap, and Mike, who enjoy doing things to him like dumping out his backpack, hitting him in the head, or pulling down his pants. Jerome has no friends, and eats his lunch in a bathroom, locker room or supply closet - hiding out alone.

That is, until Carlos arrives. Carlos, a Mexican American boy, is the new kid in school, originally from Texas and Jerome unwillingly ends up showing him the ropes to avoid the bullies. But when they are discovered in a boy's bathroom eating lunch, Carlos pulls a gun on Eddie, Snap, and Mike. Not realizing it's a toy gun, the bullies back down.

Carlos gives the toy gun to Jerome, who doesn't want it, but takes it anyway. One day, allowed to go out and play, Jerome is playing an imaginary game of good guy/bad guy in a rundown park with the toy gun when police arrive and one shoots him in the back when he tries to run away.

Later, at a preliminary hearing, the white officer claims he had no choice but to shoot, that he thought Jerome was bigger, older and had a real gun, and despite shooting him from his patrol car, he said he feared for his life.

The chapters switch between Jerome's real life (Alive), in which he recounts his life and the actual events leading up to the shooting and his death, to his afterlife (Dead), in which, as a ghost, he is privy to seeing things he never would have seen when he was alive. Jerome goes to his home and observes what life is now like for his - family, mother, father, younger sister Kim, and grandmother. He also finds himself in the bedroom of Sarah Moore, also 12, and the middle class daughter of the police officer who shot him. Jerome is frequently accompanied by the ghost of Emmett Till, a name Jerome recognizes from conversations at home, but doesn't really know the details of Emmett's death in 1955. 

Emmett is there to help Jerome understand what happened to him. Slowly, as Jerome sees other ghost boys just like Emmett and himself, he begins to understand just how deep and far-reading the roots of historical racism run in this country, so much so that a snap decision based on those roots and the often unconscious acceptance of racism can end the life of a 12 year old black boy playing in a park.

On the whole, I thought this was a well-done, very accessible book for middle grade readers (I don't think there are any others about young black kids being killed by white police officers, but if you know of one, please share the title). By connecting Emmett Till's lynching and murder by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 with Jerome's murder by a Chicago police officer Rhodes shows the reader that their deaths really are one and the same - death by racism.

And although this sounds horribly depressing, Rhodes leaves the reader with reason to hope that change is possible. Remembering, making these killings real for people and working towards change and social justice are the important points of Ghost Boys.  As Emmett tells Jerome "Bear witness...Everyone needs their story heard. Felt. We honor each other. Connect across time." But this is where I found one flaw in the the novel.

In 1955, Emmett Till's death sparks the Civil Rights Movement. Being an agent of change here is the work that Rhodes gives to Sarah Moore to do in this novel. Why? Why perpetuate the idea that only white people (here a girl) can be the helpers or agents of change and that black people (here a boy) can only be the victims, thus supporting ideas of gender and race stereotypes. Jerome's younger sister, Kim is a pretty smart girl and, if she had been only a few years older, could have been just as if not more effective than Sarah at working towards change and social justice. 

Despite this, Ghost Boys isn't perfect, but it is definitely a book that most middle graders need to read.

And if Jerome's story sounds familiar to you, perhaps it's because of the close parallel to another murder, that of Tamir Rice, also a 12 year old black boy killed by a white Cleveland, Ohio cop on November 22, 2014 and mentioned in the book.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from Net Galley

Monday, April 23, 2018

📚 It's Monday! What are you reading? 📚

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

Read and To Be Reviewed:
Last week, I indulged my love of mysteries and read To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear. It's the 14th Maisie Dobbs mystery. It takes place in the midst of the Dunkirk Evacuation during WWII, so there was plenty of excitement plus a mystery to solve. 
We also read two books about gardening, just in case spring decides to really stick around the northeast. First we read The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small. This is a perfect book for my city kids.
Then we read a book called The Ultimate Guide to Gardening: Grow Your Own Indoor Vegetable, Fairy, and Other Great Gardens by Lisa J. Amstutz. We found some really good, doable ideas in this book, which work whether you live in a city apartment or a house with a yard.
Read and Reviewed: 

Voices from the Second World War: Stories of War as Told to Children of Today - an eclectic collection of short oral histories about different experiences during WWII

Ruby in the Ruins by Shirley Hughes - now the WWII is over, young Ruby's father, a man she barely knows, returns home, and now, there are some big adjustments for her make.  

The Rizzlerunk Club Book 1: Best Buds Under Frogs by Leslie Patricelli - two girls become best friends, and have fun forming the Rizzlerunk Club, until a former best friend returns and takes over.
This book we are looking at picture book biographies

Mark of the Plague Book 2 of the Blackthorn Key Adventure) by Kevin Sands - The plague has arrived again in 1665 London, and orphan-apothecary-apprentice Christopher Rowe, 14, finds himself in the middle of a mystery concerning cures for the plague.

To be Read and Reviewed This Week:
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

We are going to be looking at picture book biographies for older readers. We haven't quite finished out list of books to read, but we are working on it. Any suggestions?

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