Review: TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green

turtlesJohn Green’s new novel Turtles All the Way Down: I don’t even know where to start. Maybe just start with what I want to say about this book. It is important. Aza, the narrator and main character, has anxiety. Even pleasurable things like kisses cause Aza’s thoughts to race and spiral. Because anxiety is rampant in American society today, especially among teens and pre-teens, Turtles will matter to those who live with a similar mental illness. Even those who are free from debilitating anxiety will gain understanding of it as John Green gives us Aza’s unfiltered inner monologue.

Or maybe I should start with what this book is about. There is a plot, for those who like plots. A billionaire has disappeared leaving his children and estate in a questionable status. The oldest son Davis was a childhood friend of Aza’s. When Aza’s best friend Daisy realizes the connection and the reward for finding Davis’s father, she forces Aza to seek out Davis. A relationship develops between the anxiety-ridden Aza and the boy who doesn’t really miss his missing father.

What if we just start at the beginning: “At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time—between 12:37 P.M. and 1:14 P.M.—by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.” This sentence establishes Aza’s voice, and shows an understanding of how going to high school is a different experience from living in the rest of the world. In Aza’s mind, everything in her world is connected and beyond her control, and similarly, everything in Turtles All the Way Down is connected to something else. Stars in the sky and Star Wars. Technology and intimacy. Turtles and lizards. Shakespeare and blogs. Infinity and right now.

I almost forgot! This book is funny! Spending so much time in Aza’s head would be “exhausting,” as her friend Daisy says, without light moments and clever phrases throughout the book. The conversations, both spoken and text message, crackle with wit as these smart kids banter about big issues (mental health, abandonment), restaurants (Chuck E. Cheese, Applebee’s), and the status of their romances.

The Fault in Our Stars should have squelched those who see John Green as someone who writes within the definition of Young Adult Literature. That book was unquestionably far beyond any narrow conceptions of the YA genre. Turtles All the Way Down is out there too. John Green has written a narrator who draws us in and affects our understanding of how a mind works. We can either recognize something of ourselves in Aza, or we can better understand those like her. Either way, Aza will affect readers. Turtles All the Way Down may be YA lit, but it’s also just lit.

Be kind to yourself, and enjoy reading this new book.

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Just Another Day of Books Around the Room

5433e0b8b1ac3d5467881f5442b38b1a--eragon-quotes-christopher-paoliniFrom time to time, I like to compile a list of books my students are reading to see if I can discern any patterns or trends that will help me understand them as readers and possibly diagnose any situations that might need to be addressed. This year I’ve been working with four classes of high school juniors. Almost all of them reliably bring a book to class each day and read it for fifteen minutes at the beginning of each ninety-minute block.

Because students finish books regularly, the list changes every day, but here are the titles from a recent class, arranged alphabetically by author. (Numbers in parentheses indicate multiple students reading the same title.)

Kwame Alexander: The Crossover
Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian
Bryan Anderson with David Mack: No Turning Back
M. T. Anderson: Feed
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: Seinfeldia
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
Derf Backderf: My Friend Dahmer
Paulo Bacigalupi: The Doubt Factory
Cris Beam: I Am
Frank Beddor: The Looking Glass Wars
Sam Bracken: My Orange Duffel Bag
Patrick Carman: Skeleton Creek
Joelle Charbonneau: The Testing
Joelle Charbonneau: Independent Study
Arthur C. Clarke: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Nyrae Dawn: Facade
Matt de la Peña: Mexican Whiteboy (2)
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: The Strain Book One
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: The Strain Book Three: The Night Eternal
Sarah Dessen: Dreamland
Carl Deuker: Swagger (2)
Emma Donoghue: Room
Sharon M. Draper: Just Another Hero
Dave Eggers: The Circle (2)
Kathryn Erskine: Mockingbird
Michael Finkel: The Stranger in the Woods
Becca Fitzpatrick: Crescendo
Gayle Forman: Where She Went
Lisa Gardner: Touch and Go
Tim Green: Unstoppable
Charles F. Gritzer: Mexico
Alison Goodman: Eon
Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler: The Demon in the Teahouse
Ellen Hopkins: Crank
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity
Sherrilyn Kenyon: Invincible
Jo Knowles: Read Between the Lines (3)
Joseph R. Kozenczak and Karen M. Kozenczak: The Chicago Killer: The Hunt for Serial Killer John Wayne Gacy
Kevin Kwan: Crazy Rich Asians
Marie Lu: Prodigy
Chris Lynch: Hit Count
Michael Lewis: The Blind Side
Mike Lupica: The Underdogs
Zoe Marriott: The Name of the Blade
George R. R. Martin: A Game of Thrones (2)
David McCullough: 1776
Meg Medina: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Linda R. Monk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide
Mike Mullin: Ashfall (2)
Mike Mullin: Ashen Winter
G. Neri: Knockout Games
Jennifer Niven: All the Bright Places (3)
Shana Norris: Troy High
Chase Novak: Breed
Joyce Carol Oates: Blonde
George Orwell: 1984
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club
Joe Perry and David Ritz: Rocks
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely: All American Boys (2)
Rainbow Rowell: Eleanor and Park
Julie Shepard: Rosie Girl
Shel Silverstein: A Light in the Attic
Andrew Smith: Grasshopper Jungle
Tom Rob Smith: Child 44
Trenton Lee Stewart: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Tara Sullivan: The Bitter Side of Sweet
Angie Thomas: The Hate U Give (4)
Julia Walton: Words on Bathroom Walls
Paul Franklin Watson: Sea Shepard: My Fight for Whales and Seals
Scott Westerfield: Goliath
Various: 666: The Number of the Beast
Lauren Roedy Vaughn: OCD, the Dude and Me
Sean Williams: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Emma Young: She Myself and I

The variety here is astonishing, but I think I see some patterns. The first one is something that probably wouldn’t be apparent to outsiders. Many of these titles were featured in our daily book-talks. Every day I tell students about a book that I think some of them might like. Those books are more likely than any others to show up in their hands. Sixteen of the books listed here have been the subject of book-talks earlier this year.

book talk slide 2

A slide like this is on the screen each day as students arrive in class.  After our independent reading time, I do a book talk on the title or titles.  In this case, we had a “two-fer” book talk on two thematically-linked novels, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

I also see a lot of books from the classroom library. Although the school where I’m working has an outstanding library and library staff, and many students are frequent visitors, other students rely on the classroom library. I’m not sure what makes the difference, but it’s an interesting question that has no wrong answer.

Authors from diverse backgrounds are important. I’m not going to do an ethnic tally, but I know that every title I mention written by an author of color shows up soon in our diverse classes.

Graphic novels are huge. In one class there is a small enclave who starts each block checking in with each other about what’s going on in whichever volume of The Strain they are currently reading. In addition, the most-read book in this still-young school year is Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer. (Nonfiction graphic novels, anyone?) The school library has 1,100 graphic novels in its collection, and those shelves get a lot of traffic.

My only concern is that a few students still choose books almost randomly, as if one book were just as good as another. Sometimes they even stick with those randomly chosen titles, even though they know they are welcome to abandon any book any time. Students know they are required to read, but some of them don’t know how to choose well. We can work on that.

I wonder if anyone sees other trends or patterns here? What am I missing?

Your comments and questions are always welcome, and as always, thanks for reading.

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The Top Twenty Ways Busy Juniors Can Find More Time to Read

reading at homeThis school year I’ve been working with 114 juniors. They are smart, focused, positive, respectful, and busy, busy, busy. Their after-school hours are devoured by sports, clubs, teams, activities, jobs, and hands-on family obligations.

As readers, some of these students are already voracious. Others haven’t read much in the last few months, and some haven’t read much for several years.

As we all work together to improve everyone’s reading life, we discuss practical aspects of being a reader. For example, we talk about when to abandon a book, when the best part of a book is most likely to happen, and the importance of having a next book in mind.

We read self-selected books for fifteen minutes in every class, but one of the obstacles to developing richer reading lives for these juniors is finding time to read outside of class. With that in mind, I recently reminded them that we make time for what we value. Then I asked them to reply to this:

Think about your typical day. Regardless of how much time you currently spend reading each day, how can you make more time for reading? Where can you find five, ten, fifteen minutes or more in your schedule to read a few more pages? List your ideas, whether they are obvious or wacky.

The 114 juniors responded wonderfully. Presented in order and without judgement, here are The Top Twenty Ways Busy Juniors Can Find More Time to Read!

1. Before going to sleep
2. In study hall
3. During lunch
4. Before school
5. During down-time in class—for example, after finishing a test
6. While eating dinner
7. On the bus
8. Right away when getting home from school
9. In the bathroom
10. After homework
11. Instead of TV or video games
12. During passing periods
13. Instead of phone or social media
14. Find a quiet place
15. After practice
16. While waiting
17. In the bath
18. When bored
19. While walking somewhere
20. (Tie) After work / During other classes

While those were the top ideas, some interesting “outlier” responses showed up too. Here they are, in the students’ own words:

“Drop classes so you can read.”
“Don’t do other homework.”
“While brushing my teeth”
“You can read with friends.”
“In the shower”
“Skip school.”
“Read two books at once, one for school and one for home.”

As we formulate expectations for our students about reading or homework in general, we should also keep in mind that home environments vary in terms of their friendliness toward reading: “People tell me to do homework and read at home, but home is an uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden environment that makes it impossible for me to do that.”

I hope you enjoyed the lists, but you can help us learn! What are your favorite times and ways to give yourself a few more minutes to read in a busy day?

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Talking about THE ENEMY with Sara Holbrook

the-enemy-md-1Many Nerdy Book Clubbers are already familiar with Sara Holbrook through her books of poetry for young readers, including I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult and The Dog Ate My Homework.  We also know Sara through her work with “partner-in-rhyme” Michael Salinger that helps students and teachers from around the world understand how writing poetry can meet the needs of living in the modern world.

Sara Holbrook’s newest book is The Enemy:  Detroit, 1954 (Calkins Creek, 2017).  Loosely based on her own childhood experiences, The Enemy’s narrator is Marjorie, a twelve-year old who sees the tensions of the Cold War play out in her home, school, and community.  Marjorie’s responses to the suspicion, paranoia, and xenophobia so prevalent in that era are powerfully relevant to our own troubled times.

I’m honored that my long-time friend Sara agreed to share her insights with Nerdy Book Club members in a recent email interview.

Sara HolbrookWhen it comes to writing, you have done so much—poetry for young people, spoken word poetry, think pieces, books for educators—but this is your first novel.  What brought you to writing a novel for middle-grade readers?

As a poet, I tend to write in first person. I think it keeps me honest. I have written hundreds of poems in a middle grade voice, from I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult to I’m Not So Bad. That is how I have chosen to write my story over the years, part fiction and part memoir. The Enemy came to me in multiple voices, from multiple points of view. The final chapter of the book is a true story that I would occasionally relate to friends. Finally, I decided I wanted to write about it, and it grew into the book.

What about The Enemy do you hope will appeal to young readers?

Marjorie, the protagonist, claims she is not shy, but she struggles with speaking up for what is right. I think (hope) young readers will cheer her on as she finally triumphs in finding her own voice.

One thread of The Enemy deals with how immigrants are welcomed by some and mistreated by others.  Were you aware of that back in 1954, or is that thread more informed by what you see happening in 2017?

First, I was only six in 1954. But growing up, I certainly was aware of immigrants, as I grew up surrounded by them. Many of my friends had a grandparent who spoke broken English, or no English at all. I remember once babysitting at the house of an immigrant family and being astounded by their empty closets. Among my parent’s friends, the term DP, was widely used to label folks who had European accents. That said, I don’t remember overt bullying by kids against immigrants in my school. I have, however, heard these reports from adult friends of mine who came here as children. In the school district where I live now–Mentor, Ohio–a few years ago, there was a high school student, a recent Croatian immigrant, who tragically committed suicide due to extreme bullying. News reports cited a culture of aggressive conformity in the school. Also, I have family who actively work helping stranded migrants on our southern border, so immigration is a topic we often discuss. Studying history and (frankly) age have given me more perspective on the great sacrifices immigrants make moving to a strange place to start over, a place where acceptance is not guaranteed. This I have written about in an adult poetry book, From the Park Bench (2015), in a persona poem.

Came the Irish Catholics,

who hated the protestants,

who hated the Poles,

who hated the Germans,

who hated the Italians.

The Serbs and the Croats brought their hate with them.

And everyone hated the Jews.

All that hate waved through the ghettos.

After the war followed the hillbillies, blacks, and Latinos

who began to unite the city

in some kind of new-improved hatred.

Cultural diversity is a crock.

Everyone wants to be with their own kind

or the closest thing to it

and hate ain’t no recent invention.

I like how the author’s note at the end of The Enemy explains what various family members were like in 1954 and to what degree they inspired various characters.  There isn’t much there about you though.  So, what were you like in junior high, and how are you still kind of the same?

I was a total geek, glasses and braces. I was a daydreamer, quietly rebellious, and I was skeletal and could barely hold up a pair of corduroys. I was so shy I’d turn purple if anyone talked to me. I did collect maps and brochures from National Geographic and spent long hours at the library where I got into trouble more than once for sneaking into the adult section. Am I the same? As an adult I consider myself a plainclothes revolutionary. But I will say that, like Marjorie, I have sometimes had to give myself a little kick to speak up for myself. I have a people-pleasing tendency that I have to fight against pretty much daily.

The dialogue in The Enemy is especially appealing.  Marjorie, the twelve-year-old narrator, has a lot of clever lines, and other characters’ words are written in ways that make clear how a readers’ ear is supposed to hear them.  How does that work?  Do you catch snippets of conversation and build from there, or do you base a character’s language on the voice of someone you know, or something else?

I spent a lot of time speaking the dialogue and internal monologues out loud as I wrote. I have always felt that with performance poetry, my performance feeds my writing just as much as my writing feeds the performance. So it is natural to me to speak the words as I write them. I worked until it sounded natural, true to the characters.

At one point in The Enemy, Marjorie asks her mother, “What’s worse, a commie or a Nazi?”  What is Marjorie trying to figure out with that question?

That is actually the first line I wrote in the book. It held its place as the first line of the book for the first few drafts, even. Marjorie is surrounded by the fallout from WWII— her neighbor Mrs. Fisher who hasn’t overcome the loss of her son – her own father’s experiences in the war – Nazi’s are known as the worst of the worst. Or they used to be. Now Marjorie is hearing of a new political enemy, the commies and the Russians and they have a bomb that could wipe out the world. She wants to know which enemy to worry about. She doesn’t really know much about the commies or Russians, WWII has personally touched her.

The kids in The Enemy lived through traumatic events of historic proportions, although the refugee children confronted them more directly than the American kids on the home front.  Drawing on your understanding as a mom and grandmother and educator with a lot of international experience, what can you say about how children deal with things when their worlds become so chaotic or violent?

World events so affect kids. In one extreme, they can be caught in the crossfire. In cases such as with Marjorie, talk about newsworthy events comes to them by way of media and parent discussions. We know kids mimic adult behaviors and we see this in The Enemy when Bernadette insists that the circle of friends sign a loyalty oath. In my own case, I remember having discussions with girlfriends about whether we would grow up to have children.  We were worried and would talk about “the bomb.” I was suspicious that perhaps this was a false memory, until I found it confirmed in contemporaneous interviews that Studs Terkel did with kids. The interviews appear in the final chapter of his book, The Good War. Kids take the siftings of parents’ conversations and actions and build their own realities. One thing I had to do was make sure I wasn’t relying on childhood false narratives and passing them off as history. Throughout the writing of the book, I confirmed every one of my memories through research. From McCarthy’s book banning and Mr. Wizard’s recipe for a volcano, to actually tracking my father’s Army unit’s movements in the European theater to confirm his stories, I searched and found documentable evidence for the stories in the book. My meticulous editor, Carolyn Yoder, even had me make a bibliography of my research.

The young people in The Enemy are just living their everyday lives—school, parents, friends, teachers—but the paranoia and politics of the larger society keep causing things to happen that those kids do not fully understand.  Do you think today’s American middle-schoolers are more aware of world events going on around them, and if so, how does it affect them?

When the twin towers came down, Michael Salinger and I took great care to guard his then second grade son from fearsome news reports, muting the sound of the TV when he entered the room. Still, three or four days later, he came to his father and asked, “When are we going to get bombed?” He’d heard just enough to create a false narrative that had him plenty scared. According to multiple reports, hate crimes in the US are up 20% as a result of the recent election. Unfortunately, according the Southern Poverty Law Center, bullying and hate crimes are also up in schools and the increase can be directly linked to the election of Donald Trump. Kids reflect the mood and culture of the parents. If they sense fear or hostility in their parents, that is going to be apparent in their actions. Students outside this country (I have visited over 50 schools in more than 40 countries) tend to be far more aware of world events than our kids, sadly. I see that reflected in the poems that they write. We have seen popular culture overwhelm news events in the minds of young people, and that’s not only tragic, it’s dangerous. I think part of our jobs as middle grade educators is getting them outside of themselves and their immediate environs and help them see the greater world.

You and Michael do a lot of work in overseas and American schools.  What have you discovered that is universal about school-age children?

Kids want to know. Too often adults who are pressed for time resort to speaking to kids in directives–go there, read that, sit quietly–rather than taking time to explain what’s going on and answering questions. As parents and educators, the very best thing that we can do is to encourage their natural curiosity. I hear two things from middle grade kids all over the world: 1. I’m not like those other kids, and 2. Nobody listens or cares what I have to say. This feeling is universal.

Many educators, myself included, cheered your January, 2017 Huffington Post piece “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems” in which you described how the STAAR test in Texas used two of your poems as test questions that you found incomprehensible.  What else do you want to say to educators who love making a difference in the lives of students but who are burdened by the accountability culture that sometimes gets in the way of their work?

The testing emperors have no clothes. The STAAR questions/answers were beyond incomprehensible; they were fiction created by an anonymous author of unknown scholarship. The author of those questions had no idea why I put a stanza break in here or used a simile there. Not a clue. When it comes to interpreting aesthetic literature, the authors just make stuff up. And yet kids’ lives and teachers’ lives depend on a 12 year-old’s ability to guess the answers made up by the author of the test. What do I say to the teachers? Keep questioning the quality of the tests, talk to parents about the quality of the tests. Stop being ashamed. Any test that purports to measure a student’s abilities that does not take into account any input from the teacher is bogus on its face. The tests attempt to evaluate both the student and the teacher in one test, and consistently fail at both.

I did write a follow up article, which appeared in The Washington Post, “Why I Would Never Tell a Student What a Poem Means.”

What else do you still want to do as a writer and educator?  Will there be more novels?

I have two other novels in the works. Borderline is set in 2005 on the border between Tucson and Nogales. The protagonist is Hannah who has been sent to live with her grandmother, an activist on the Mexican border. The grandmother is Marjorie. I have one more novel in mind, set in Detroit in 1967. I’ve also been scratching on a novel in poetry and have a couple ideas for other poetry projects and one teacher resource. This is the first week of summer, when school visits are over and writing time begins. I’m excited to get to work.

Thank you for the many ways that your life and work and generosity have affected so many students and teachers around the world for so many years.  You never need to wonder if you have made a difference.  As you look back, what is most gratifying about all you have accomplished?

Writing with kids. I love it. I am constantly flabbergasted by their insights and take such joy as I see them taking baby steps to finding their voices and just becoming. I have had so many rich opportunities and I am deeply grateful for all the teachers and administrators who have invited me into classrooms, both by inviting me for school visits and using my work in their classrooms.

sara me ncte

Sara and me at Sara’s signing for The Enemy during the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Atlanta, Georgia in November, 2016.

This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the Nerdy Book Club web site back on June 25, 2017. For those interested in more about The Enemy, here is a link to my original review.

Visit Sara Holbrook online at and follow @saraholbrook on Twitter!

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Nine More New Nonfiction Picture Books!

This is an especially strong batch of new nonfiction picture books, including a few that haven’t received much buzz. Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix, for example, is unlike anything else out there, and I haven’t seen it reviewed anywhere. Same goes for Adrift at Sea and Waiting for Pumpsie. Maybe I just missed the reviews, but each of these books is worth a look for those seeking to add cultural diversity to their nonfiction picture book collections. I hope you find something here that will interest the children in your life.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food RemixChef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix has a cover that jumps off the shelf, and the story inside lives up to the cover’s promise. Roy Choi learned about preparing good Korean food at home, and he learned other things on the street. After culinary school, he became a chef, but the lifestyle didn’t work for him, so he combined his food knowledge and street smarts to serve great food for people to eat on the street “while skateboarding, exploring, or just hanging.” Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix capitalizes on the popularity of food trucks and uses bright graffiti-style graphics and comic art to enhance the book’s fun urban ethos. Explanations of various Korean dishes and recipes for some of Choi’s creations accompany this picture book’s underlying messages about perseverance, community, and using our talents to make a positive difference for others, in Choi’s case through “food smiles.” Keep this one in mind when students need a biography.

We Are ShiningWe Are Shining by Gwendolyn Brooks

One of the best things to come from this year’s observations of the late poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s 100th birthday is We Are Shining, a new picture book adaptation of “A Little Girl’s Poem,” published in 1983. The “We” in the title can belong to one child or a collective childhood as the narrative persona claims the natural right of a child to shine, sing, and live! Ms. Brooks was a forward-looking, positive person, but she also gently reminds readers how many of the world’s children struggle to live into the lives they deserve. The poem’s message is uplifting, as are the illustrations from the always excellent Jan Spivey Gilchrist. The children in this book sometimes swirl in imaginative settings, and other times are settled in their homes and neighborhoods. Matching this poet, this poem, and this artist was a visionary publishing decision. We Are Shining is a beautiful book, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

The Secret Life of the Red FoxThe Secret Life of the Red Fox by Laurence Pringle

The Secret Life of the Red Fox is exactly the kind of book that captivates young animal lovers. Focusing on one vixen, Laurence Pringle emphasizes the secretiveness inherent in her nocturnal nature, as well as her intelligence. Pringle incorporates some darker moments too as the fox faces danger and preys upon smaller animals. Kate Garchinsky’s pictures convey the animal’s beauty, both in close-up paintings and from a distance in various contexts. This book will reward readers who return to its words and pictures as closer examination reveals new details, and the most intriguing elements retain their allure. Although there is some potentially challenging vocabulary here, a useful glossary is included, and the likely repeat reading will reinforce those words.The Secret Life of the Red Fox will pair well with last year’s Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson.

Waiting for PumpsieWaiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein

I didn’t see the usual batch of baseball picture books this spring, but Barry Wittenstein’s Waiting for Pumpsie would be a standout in any year. The main character Bernard is fictional, but the events surrounding the 1959 Red Sox debut of Elijah “Pumpsie” Green are true. Although Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, twelve seasons later the Boston Red Sox had never fielded a black player. Then in 1959 Pumpsie Green was ready to move from the minor leagues to the Red Sox. Waiting for Pumpsie is the story of how Bernard and his family, and other black Red Sox fans, first wait for the level of Pumpsie’s minor league play to develop into major-league readiness. Then they wait for him to join the team. Then they wait for him to get in a game, which happens in a road game they listen to on the radio. Finally, they wait for Pumpsie to take his place on the field at Fenway Park, and his first at-bat. All this waiting has an emotional pull that lets readers know what it was like for black Americans to await each step toward integration. Racist taunts at Fenway Park are directed at both Bernard’s family and Pumpsie, and those examples of ignorance also have emotional resonance. Waiting for Pumpsie gets the baseball elements right, both visually and in the text. More importantly, Waiting for Pumpsie shows how America’s pastime served as a microcosm of America’s gradual civil rights progress.

Long May She Wave: The True Story of Caroline Pickersgill and Her Star-Spangled CreationLong May She Wave: The True Story of Caroline Pickersgill and Her Star-Spangled Creation by Kristen Fulton

Before reading Long May She Wave, I didn’t know the story of the Pickersgill family and their role in making the flag flown over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 which became the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Long May She Wave focuses on 13-year-old Caroline Pickersgill as she works to create the enormous flag as a signal of American pride to the British invaders. Because author Kristen Fulton accents verbs in her story-telling, this picture book is great for a read-aloud. Fulton also cleverly incorporates phrases from the National Anthem’s lyrics into the story, which makes this an excellent accompaniment to introducing the song to children. Holly Berry’s illustrations evoke the popular lithographs of Pickersgill’s time, while colorful images of the flag and “bombs bursting in air” pop out of the otherwise simple drawings. Long May She Wave is an enlightening and entertaining book for helping young readers understand the flag, Flag Day, and The National Anthem.

This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the WorldThis Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World by Matt LaMothe

At first I thought This Is How We Do It was going to be a little too busy and confusing. Silly me. It comes together smoothly as author Matt Lamothe charmingly shows how kids from Italy, Japan, Peru, Uganda, Russia, India, and Iran do pretty much the same things American kids do, although some of the details are different. Each activity—breakfast, going to school, playing, etc.—is shown in action from other the countries, with a space on the page for American kids to reflect on their own version of the activity. This large picture book draws on the basic principle that much of how we learn is based on recognition of how things are the same and how things differ. This Is How We Do It can help children (and adults) understand that our lives have far more in common with our global neighbors than we are sometimes led to believe.

The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the AmazonThe Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon by Greg Pizzoli

The appeal of Greg Pizzoli’s The Quest for Z lies in its mysteries. The unknown has a way of firing the imagination, and this picture book deals with a couple of interesting unknowns. (Pardon my vagueness, but I’m avoiding a major spoiler.) The text’s complexity, especially in the sidebars, probably makes this most appropriate for older elementary students, although Pizzoli’s illustrations do such an excellent job of conveying the story that younger readers are likely to get something out of it too, regardless of how much or how little they explore the text. The Quest for Z is essentially an adventure story, but it also has fun with touches of humor and cartoon-style artwork.

Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's BooksBalderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel

A picture book about John Newbery, the founding father of publishing for children, seems like a good idea, but I had my doubts about whether Newbery could be made interesting for young readers. Michelle Markel’s Balderdash! begins by showing Newbery’s attitude and early life in fun ways, and the first half of the book maintains that tone. Although Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations remain “boisterous” throughout, the text loses much of its momentum in the book’s second half. I’m glad this version of Newbery’s biography exists, and it can play a role when talking to children about books, but Balderdash! is not one they are likely to return to on their own.

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of SurvivalAdrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Adrift at Sea is the true story of Tuan Ho, a young Vietnamese boy who escaped his country’s military regime in 1981 and became part of the wave of “boat people,” refugees hoping to arrive in America. As author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch relates how Tuan and members of his family survived their escape and a flimsy boat with a motor that eventually dies, she keeps the drama intact without crossing the line into being terrifying. My only quibble with the text is the awkward present-tense construction in the first sentence: “When I come home from school today, a jug of water and bags of dried food sit by the door.” (Delete the word today, and the sentence works fine.) The artwork of Brian Deines is exquisite. His pastels display the sea’s enormity and beauty without undercutting the threatening situation. The colors somehow convey a sense of hope that I found comforting. The front and back matter complete Tuan’s story as it relates how his refugee family found a home and life in America.

Thank you for reading this month’s collection of reviews, some of which appeared earlier on Goodreads in slightly different form.

If this is your first visit to my blog, welcome.  You may want to take a look back at earlier months to see more nonfiction picture book reviews.

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Seven More New Nonfiction Picture Books

Earlier this month I reviewed seven nonfiction picture books, all focused on women who persisted in the face of various obstacles. Here are seven more reviews from my May and June reading that I hope readers will find useful.  (In my opinion, the best of this batch is the first one here, Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon.)

Grand CanyonGrand Canyon by Jason Chin
Grand Canyon, Jason Chin’s latest picture book, captures the historical, ecological, and geological complexity of the Grand Canyon, as well as its grandeur and beauty. Chin provides depth and detail as he explains the forces that shaped various levels and regions of the canyon, and the animals and plants that inhabit each area. The editorial layout of Grand Canyon holds some surprises for first-time readers, and the interesting images will lure those readers back for rewarding repeat visits.

Penguin DayPenguin Day by Nic Bishop
Nic Bishop’s Penguin Day tells the simple story of a penguin family’s typical day. Mama penguin goes for food. Papa penguin watches over baby penguin. Baby penguin goes exploring and gets in a little trouble. With simple text and a variety of interesting photos, young animal lovers will be able to navigate this book largely on their own. I like how the photos show close-ups, group shots, and action sequences. Taken all together, the daily life of a penguin family becomes clear, and it has a lot of parallels to the daily lives of humans.

If Sharks DisappearedIf Sharks Disappeared Lily Williams
Something about sharks makes them endlessly fascinating. If Sharks Disappeared acknowledges the scariness of sharks but then makes a sharp turn to focus on the ecological importance of sharks. Author Lily Williams illustrates what would happen if sharks vanished from the food chain. Williams explains that sharks are apex predators, those at the top of the food chain. If sharks go away, species lower on the food chain will proliferate, causing a variety of ripples in the delicate balance affecting creatures in the ocean and on land, including humans.

The cause/effect focus in If Sharks Disappeared will stimulate scientific thinking in readers. In this time when some politicians discredit hard science by calling it a hoax, we need to help young people understand that relationships exist in nature, and we can accurately predict what will happen if a variable is changed. Teachers could easily use this book as an example, and then encourage students to consider other similar situations in nature.

The pictures in this book are colorful and charming, providing a nice counterpoint to the serious concepts under consideration in its pages. The glossary at the end is useful and provides accessible definitions of complex ideas.

TheodoreTheodore by Frank Keating
Although Mike Wimmer’s paintings are amazingly lifelike, this picture book biography of Theodore Roosevelt is one of the weaker installments in Frank Keating’s series focused on notable presidents. Maybe Roosevelt’s life covered such vast areas of interest that it’s difficult to capture him on such a small scale. The language here is also probably too stilted to engage most young readers. Keating’s text is flat, and the quotes from Roosevelt have flourishes of vocabulary likely to over-challenge most elementary-age readers. I hope Governor Keating continues this series because other entries have been more satisfying. (Frank Keating is the former Governor of Oklahoma and was recently interviewed by President Trump to become Director of the F.B.I.) Theodore is a fine book for when a student is required to read something about a president, but it’s unlikely to become a favorite.

On Duck PondOn Duck Pond by Jane Yolen
Although On Duck Pond has a barely noticeable fictional frame around the narrative, it is essentially a work of nonfiction told in verse. As ducks arrive at the pond on a summer morning, their quacking makes quite a disturbance, which sets in motion a variety of responses among the other animals that call the pond home. Eventually things calm down, and the animals return to normal. The animal behaviors in Jane Yolen’s newest book will catch the interest of animal and nature lovers, and Bob Marshall’s pictures will have them lingering over the pages, perhaps providing some appropriate silent space between Yolen’s verses.

John Deere, That’s Who!John Deere, That’s Who! by Tracy Nelson Maurer

As a Midwesterner, I’m very aware of the John Deere brand of farm machinery. In fact, my father-in-law worked in a John Deere factory for many years painting the company’s cotton pickers. I’ve wondered why the company uses its distinctive green color on everything, and why they have a “deer” emblem on the logo with words “John Deere.”

Tracy Nelson Maurer’s John Deere, That’s Who! provides young readers with an excellent understanding of the man behind the brand. John Deere was a blacksmith in the 1830s who used his forging skills and ingenuity to build a new kind of plow that led to faster, easier, plowing, which revolutionized American farming. Maurer’s stylized language—contraption, tuckered out, for example–evoke the frontier with echoes of a tall tale. Tim Zeltner’s pictures are reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood as they convey the lyrical aspects of flat land and plain, hard-working folks.

This is a worthwhile picture book for any collection, although—alas—it does not explain the green paint or deer logo.

Give Bees a ChanceGive Bees a Chance by Bethany Barton

Because our most memorable interactions with bees usually end in pain, author Bethany Barton has set herself quite a challenge in making bees interesting and appealing, but Give Bees a Chance is an engaging picture book that will help young readers understand and appreciate bees. The facts here are tantalizingly revealed as a friend tries to convince his pal that bees are more than just conveyors of stings. The large drawings and informal font make Give Bees a Chance seem lighter than it would as a straightforward nonfiction text about bees. Teachers might consider asking readers ahead of time what they hope to learn about bees, then watch as this book anticipates and answers virtually every possible question.

Please check back here next month for another round-up of new nonfiction picture books.  Meanwhile, thanks for reading!

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A Few Thoughts about Professional Development Books

twitter pollI’m about seventy pages into a new writing project. Although I’m reluctant to say much about it at this point, I hope what I’m working on will eventually be of use and interest to teachers and maybe others who care about education and literacy. Right now, this project is a glorious mess with ideas everywhere. The shape and focus haven’t emerged yet, and I’m 100% comfortable with that. I believe that if writers just keep going, the writing will eventually reveal its own purpose.

A few days ago, however, I had a moment where I lost faith in that belief. I was becoming impatient. I wanted to see the end of the journey while backing out of the driveway. I was thinking about whether this project is a professional development book, a memoir, or a hybrid of those plus a few other things.

That led me to wonder about my professional reading. When I read those books, I know what makes me turn down page corners and add highlights and margin notes. I also know what makes me roll my eyes and skip a few pages. Thinking about my project and its potential audience, and possibly avoiding the actual hard work of writing, I popped up a little Twitter poll to see how others view their professional reading: “A question for educators: What do you hope to find in the books you read for professional development?” The poll offered these choices: Practical strategies, Inspiration, and New insights on theory.

I appreciate the 138 people who responded to the poll. 61% said they hope to find practical strategies. 22% want new insights on theory, and 17% are looking for inspiration. As we all know, Twitter polls are hard science, so I accept these results, although they were a little surprising to me.

This got me thinking about how different readers might approach professional reading, my own perceptions of that genre, and how it can help my current project.

One of my firmest beliefs about educational practice is that it is highly contextual. What works for me might not work for you, and it might not even work for me tomorrow or with a different class. So, when I read books that offer “practical strategies,” I immediately think of them not as recipes or how-to guides but something that worked for one author in a specific context that will need adaptation to work for me. In other words, a strategy isn’t completely practical unless it has some elasticity. I’m turned off by writers who claim to have discovered The One True Way and condemn those who don’t follow it as unenlightened and doomed. On the other hand, I’ve harvested many great ideas from my professional reading, and I’m indebted to the authors who provided them, but in virtually every case I changed something about the idea to make it fit the specific needs of my students and contours of my school.

What about theory? Reading about educational theory used to make me snort in contempt. I thought, “Theory is just theory! It’s an abstraction with no real-world relevance.” Now I realize that I didn’t have enough experience to see the connection between the abstractions and the “real world.” Useful theories are derived from practice. Further practice results in new insights on those theories, which in turn creates more innovative practice, and on and on. Thoughtful readers understand that new insights on theory can lead to creative classrooms using new ways to engage learners. Writing about theory needs to be framed in such a way that it helps readers see how the implications affect real students in real classrooms.

As I said earlier, the results of my Twitter poll surprised me. I would have chosen “Inspiration” as the answer to my own question. Being a teacher is gratifying, frustrating, and misunderstood by the public. Sometimes we can feel isolated in our classrooms, our schools, and even in our profession. I am inspired by those who have overcome obstacles, silenced critiques, and discovered ways to thrive in challenging environments. Their stories reinforce my faith that I too can achieve important accomplishments and that I am not alone in my work.

I hope my writing will eventually provide readers with some of the valuable ideas I’ve mentioned here. Those are worthy goals. For now, it’s time to get back to the writing. It can’t take shape until it has mass. Onward. Thanks for reading.

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Seven New Nonfiction Picture Books about Extraordinarily Persistent Women

So far this year, I’ve been posting a monthly round-up of nonfiction picture books. May was kind of complicated, and I didn’t make it, so I have two months of titles to share with you. As it turns out, half of the books prominently feature women who endured obstacles of various kinds and, through persistence, ended up with accomplishments that benefit all of us. I will share those seven books in this post, and seven more titles in an upcoming post.

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the WorldShe Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intended to rebuke Senator Elizabeth Warren during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, McConnell uttered the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted.” As it turns out, McConnell created a new rallying cry for women: “She Persisted.”

She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton’s new picture book, isn’t overtly political, but it capitalizes on McConnell’s phrase to present thirteen American women who pushed through barriers to accomplish feats that benefit all of us.

Some of these women were quite young at the time of their difficulties. These will resonate especially clearly with school-age readers. Each of the thirteen women is explained with a one-paragraph “she persisted” story supported by a quote from the woman herself and two Alexandra Boiger illustrations, one showing the subject at the time of her perseverance and another demonstrating the larger effect of her persistence.

I hope grown-ups will help young readers find their way to She Persisted. It’s an appealing, useful book.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless ScientistShark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

Last year Jess Keating’s Pink Is for Blobfish was one of the most celebrated nonfiction picture books of 2016. Her new book Shark Lady shows that Keating has a knack for bringing nature to young readers.

Shark Lady is the story of marine biologist Eugenie Clark who turned a childhood fascination with sharks into a lifelong passion. One of the strengths of this book is how Keating presents in clear language Eugenie Clark’s specific scientific discoveries and contributions. Shark Lady also conveys the importance of focus, study, and determination in face of obstacles, such as those facing women of Clark’s generation who were discouraged from pursuing careers in science.

Jess Keating’s book follows by a few months another picture book about Eugenie Clark, Heather Lang’s Swimming with Sharks. Although both books are worthwhile, Keating’s is more colorful and whimsical, and generally lighter in tone than the dramatic, realistic approach of Lang’s Swimming with Sharks.

Margaret and the Moon: The Computer Scientist Who Saved the First Lunar LandingMargaret and the Moon: The Computer Scientist Who Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins

Margaret and the Moon is a nonfiction picture book about Margaret Hamilton, a young girl who loves mathematics and applies her fascination to learning how to write code for computers. Eventually, she goes to work for NASA where her coding skills are important to the Apollo program. When the Apollo 11 lunar module develops a last-minute programming glitch, everyone turns to Margaret. Fortunately, Margaret had anticipated the possibility of this exact problem and easily solves it with her coding skills.

Dean Robbins tells Margaret story with a light touch. The mathematics is shown as fun, and the drama of the Apollo program is basically presented as more math fun. Lucy Knisley’s comic-style pictures contribute to the light touch, but they also provide more in-depth representations of some of the math for those who look a little deeper.

In a time when coding is becoming an integral part of the standard curriculum, an appealing story featuring code can be a worthwhile addition to a home, library, or classroom collection.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and LinesMaya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines begins quietly as Maya plays with her brother in the woods near their home. On other days, “she searched for birds in the forest.” From its first pages, this picture book biography explores the habits of mind that lead Maya to become one of the world’s foremost architects. Her parents were artists who encouraged freedom of thought after fleeing oppression in China and Maya learns to think “with her hands as well as her mind.” The creative process that led to Maya’s design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D. C. is highlighted as a natural extension of her on-going artistic development.

Dow Phumiruk’s quiet, subdued illustrations support Jeanne Walker Harvey’s story of a contemplative young girl who embraces challenges as she innovatively seeks to build structures and shape spaces where people can live, work, think, and explore.

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat's Foster MomMoto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom is a completely satisfying story for young animal lovers. Suzi Eszterhas is a photographer at a Kenyan wildlife reserve. She lives in a tent where wild animals roam freely nearby. When a baby serval, a breed of wildcat, is left alone, rangers ask her to be a foster mom and prepare him for an eventual return to the wild. Moto is cute and cuddly, especially at the beginning, but Eszterhas never loses sight of the goal of returning Moto to the wild.

The primary text of Moto and Me involves how Moto became stranded, and the creative ways that Eszterhas balanced being playful and instructive. For a nonfiction semi-scientific book, there is a fair amount of emotion that will touch readers. Moto and Me includes seventeen chapters, each two or three pages in length, so this has a larger scope than many picture books. Third grade is probably the sweet spot for Moto and Me.

The masterful photographs are the heart of this book. Baby Moto is irresistible, and as the months go by, we can easily see how he becomes a predator while still maintaining a connection to Eszterhas. Beyond the story of a baby animal and its foster mom, Moto and Me is also instructive about nature conservancy, Kenya, photography, and the developmental process of a wildcat.

Rhino in the House: The Story of Saving SamiaRhino in the House: The Story of Saving Samia by Daniel Kirk

Well, this picture book is nothing short of adorable. Naturalist Anna Merz sought to protect endangered African animal species. As she works at an animal sanctuary, she discovers a baby rhino abandoned by her mother. So, she takes her home, nurses her to health, pampers her, and names her Samia. Samia behaves like a fine dog, following Anna and showing her affection and attention. But rhinos grow beyond the practical limits of most houses. That doesn’t stop Samia though. She visits Anna’s house even after she is fully grown!

This charming story will captivate animal lovers. The pictures are warm and convey the emotions of each scene, as well as the Kenyan landscape. The back matter is excellent. Those who want more details about Anna and her work will find three pages of a fuller version of the story, as well as a bibliography of print and online sources related to Anna Merz and rhino rescues, including several videos.

Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of SportsMartina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner

I admire how Phil Bildner’s text assumes that most young readers today do not know about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, a fair assumption, even though those of us who are just a bit older clearly remember Chrissie and Martina. (I saw them play in the 1983 Virginia Slims of Dallas tournament. Although I saw them face other opponents in preliminary rounds, they would go on to meet in the finals.) As Bildner and artist Brett Helquist make the case for their rivalry being the greatest “in the history of sports,” Martina and Chrissie touches on issues of character and friendship, as well as the Cold War. The tone of the book is enthusiastically conversational, but overly repetitive use of two devices–boldface and repeating phrases with individual words as sentences (“Won. The. Match.”)–seems condescending to readers. Well-chosen words, inherently dramatic situations, and compelling artwork can convey emphasis at least as well as those self-conscious devices.

These reviews originally appeared on Goodreads, in some cases in slightly different form.  As always, thank you for reading.

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9781501949180No one these days is delivering better sports books than Kwame Alexander.  He writes other things too, but his sports books, including The Crossover and Booked, consistently reach readers who don’t usually read and provided satisfying stories for more experienced readers.  Alexander’s inventive novel-in-verse format is engaging and accessible, and the drama in these books moves beyond scores and competition to address deeper real-life issues with authenticity and empathy.

Kwame Alexander’s newest book is The Playbook:  52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in this Game Called Life.  The cover nicely echoes The Crossover and Booked, while the contents are delivered in a unique multi-format presentation.  Although readers can dip into The Playbook anywhere and flip or click through randomly, the material is organized into sections by topic:  Grit, Motivation, Passion, Focus, Teamwork and Resilience.  Within each section, the 52 rules are presented through original aphorisms supported by quotes from notable athletes, mini-memoir installments from Kwame Alexander, and (in the print version) photos and graphics.  These varied texts find the sweet spot of saying important things in ways that are inspirational without being preachy.

The audiobook is excellent.  One hour in length on one CD, it captures the same tight-loose approach of the print version.  Going through it in order provides a cohesive listening experience, but certain tracks will be favorites for different listeners, and the production makes it easy to duplicate the skipping around that is so appealing in the print version.  Section titles and corresponding tracks are printed on the CD.  Narrator Ruffin Prentiss III sounds young, and his narration is friendly, sincere, and dramatic in the appropriate places.  (Click here for a brief audio excerpt from The Playbook, courtesy of Recorded Books.)

Readers who discover The Playbook will likely be absorbed as they read and listen (and re-read and re-listen), but I can’t say enough about the value of this book and audiobook as mentor texts.  The Playbook can be an exciting introduction to the concept of multi-genre writing projects.  Using Kwame Alexander’s work as a model, students can focus on a specific idea and then write their own narratives, find or create graphics, research relevant quotes, and distill their learning into an aphoristic rule.  Using the audiobook’s narration as a model for tone, students can record and edit their work into a finished production.

Kwame Alexander’s The Playbook is different from other books on the shelves.  It’s a sports book that uses gamesmanship as a starting point for talking about the character traits and interpersonal skills young people are trying to develop.  Providing access to the audio and print versions of The Playbook is an excellent way for grown-ups to help with that process.

I have a free copy of the audio book version of The Playbook for the first reader to request it in a comment below!  (U. S. addresses only, please.)

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More Recent Nonfiction Picture Books: President-Plants-Protest-Princess Edition

As John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday approaches later this month, some new picture books portray various aspects of his legacy. Last month I reviewed Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President, and this month’s reviews include two more Kennedy books, along with an assortment of other interesting titles.

A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy's Big SpeechA Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey
Shana Corey’s A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech is denser than most picture books, perhaps because it tries to do so much. It is a serviceable biography of Kennedy wrapped around a narrative about how his convictions regarding civil rights were sometimes compromised by political considerations. In addition, the beginning and ending of this book invite readers to consider how they are part of history. A lot is going on in these pages.

The R. Gregory Christie illustrations render well-known figures in recognizable ways while also conveying a folk-art feel.

A Time to Act is a worthwhile book for helping young readers understand President Kennedy, segregation, and the civil rights movement, but they may also need help with understanding some of the content. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt is mentioned but isn’t identified. Jackie Robinson is described only as “the famous baseball player.” Passages from Kennedy’s speeches contain language that might also require simplification and explanation for the youngest readers.

A Time to Act provides clear messages about the importance of acting on our convictions and becoming actively involved in the important issues of our time.

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for an American IconWhen Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon by Natasha Wing
I did not know about this episode from Jackie Kennedy’s very full life. In her post-White House years, she led a successful campaign to save New York City’s Grand Central Station from destruction. I admire picture books that promote activism. This one will help young readers understand how the preservation of historical sites is frequently threatened, and how Jackie Kennedy used her celebrity and influence to make a positive difference. As author Natasha Wing writes, “The fight to save Grand Central changed how people viewed old buildings. Rather than tearing them down, preservationists now had a model for how to save historic buildings all over the country, protecting our precious heritage.” Some of the Alexandra Boiger illustrations are vivid while others are drabber; in each case, the color choices help create the mood for what is happening on the page.

Plant the Tiny SeedPlant the Tiny Seed by Christie Matheson
This interactive picture book about how nature turns seeds into flowers is perfect for reading aloud to groups or individuals. The simple text and appealing pictures leave plenty of space for reader involvement as they reinforce a child’s understanding of nature while also providing room for wonder.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest SongStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio
This is a tough one. “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the lynching of Black Americans, was Billie Holiday’s powerful signature. In concert and on record, her rendition was chilling and emotional.

So, Gary Golio’s attempt to develop a picture book based on Billie Holiday’s association with “Strange Fruit” is ambitious but fraught with the potential to be inappropriately graphic for some young readers. Golio seems aware of the tricky territory. The first part of the book deals with Billie Holiday’s origins and the obstacles she faced due to racism. The unfairness and danger of a black woman making her way in the white-dominated entertainment world is made clear but not in a way likely to be frightening to most young readers. When the song “Strange Fruit” is mentioned for the first time in the primary narrative, it is noted to be about lynching but Golio does not dwell on the song’s imagery. However, the back matter begins with a full page of the lyrics in large print, including “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” “bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” and “the sudden smell of burning flesh.”

Charlotte Riley-Webb’s illustrations are a revelation. Bold strokes, bright colors, and swirling shapes convey the story and create tension. I especially liked the rough textures on the surface of some of the paintings.

It’s not my place to say whether a book is or isn’t right for all audiences. All I know is that few books are right for everybody. Strange Fruit is one where the adults involved will need to think about whether it suits the needs of young people who will experience it under their guidance.

Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval PrincessWho Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess by Bridget Heos
Who Wants to Be a Princess?: What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess is an excellent picture book for those drawn to the allure of fairy tale/Disney-style princesses. Bridget Heos uses the well-known traits of those princesses as background knowledge for comparing more historically accurate depictions of medieval royal life. Although some aspects of that medieval life were grim and gross, Heos explains it all with humor, accompanied by Migy’s Disney-esque illustrations. This book will enrich students’ understanding of medieval royalty without ruining what they love about the classic movie princesses.

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of InventionsWhoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker water toy, is the same guy who figured out how to supply power to the Galileo orbiter’s computer system on its exploratory journey to Jupiter. Who knew?

The power of applying an inventive mind to problems that need solutions is the theme of Whoosh!. Sometimes the inventions hit the mark, sometimes they miss, and sometimes they end up being useful in some other way. No spoilers here, but inventing the Super Soaker was not Lonnie Johnson’s original goal as he worked on a completely different idea. In addition to exploring what it means to be an inventor, author Chris Barton acknowledges the cultural obstacles faced by Johnson as a bright African-American in the middle of the 20th Century.

Whoosh! will appeal to a wide range of young readers even as it delivers important lessons about persistence, curiosity, and how learning and schooling are not always the same.

You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?!You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! by Jonah Winter
In April I reviewed the newest Jonah Winter baseball book, Mickey Mantle:  The Commerce Comet.  If you know a reader who liked that one, You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! is another picture book in Jonah Winter’s series that revisits earlier baseball eras and makes the players (and managers) accessible to today’s young readers. Casey Stengel was, at first, a player with limited skills. As Stengel himself said, “I was not successful as a ballplayer, as it was a game of skill.” Stengel then built a knowledge base from participating in thousands of baseball games and used it to transform himself into one of the most successful managers of all time. Winter presents insights on managing a baseball team and Stengel’s life in a conversational, humorous tone with echoes of something like a tall tale. Barry Blitt’s illustrations convey a similar tone as he finds a sweet spot between comic depictions and fine water-colors.

I hope some of these titles are just right for you and the young readers in your life.  As always, thank you for reading.  I welcome your questions and comments.

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