When We Were Alone

David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett have come together to create a brilliant and important picture book that introduces to children an important part of First Nation history, which must be understood to put U.S. history in context.

Picture book, First Nation history, fiction
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 3; reading level: 3.6
5 out of 5 stars

Much of the history of First Nation people in North America is never presented in the history books that children encounter in schools. In the late 1800s First Nation boarding schools were established in the United States. The idea behind the boarding schools was to eradicate First Nation culture. Forcefully removed from homes and separated from their family members, First Nation students were forced to give up their culture and were made to dress the same, cut their hair, speak only English, and convert to Christianity.

In When We Were Alone Robertson has managed to deftly present the bleak and horrifying story of First Nation children without overwhelming young readers. He has presented the realities of the situation in a general way and paired it with hope and perseverance.

The story focuses on a young child having a conversation with her grandmother. The girl asks “why” questions and the grandmother’s answer focuses on how her time in the boarding school shaped her life as an adult.

“Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?’ I asked.
Nokom said, “Well, Nosisim…”

The grandmother responds that when she was a child and went away to school, all the children were forced to dress the same because “they wanted us to look like everybody else.”
Flett’s monochromatic illustration of the children all dressed the same is a powerful image that illustrates how something as seemingly simple as having the authority to tell people what clothes they can wear can begin to erase an entire culture.

Robertson then follows up the bleak idea of the children’s identity being erased by boarding school rules with a message of inner strength and hope. The grandmother has a story about how each season, when the children found themselves alone together, they would remember their culture and heritage and secretly work to maintain their identity.

But sometimes in the fall, when we were alone, and the leaves had turned to their warm autumn hues, we would roll around on the ground. We would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again.

And this made us happy.

Both Robertson and Flett are Cree descendants, so the voice of the story is authentic. My only wish is that the book contained some type of author’s note or bibliography so that parents, teachers, or children would have further information about this topic. Some readers could believe this is a made up story, not realizing that it wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 that First Nation parents had the right to determine if their child was placed in a boarding school.

This is an incredibly powerful and important book that sensitively introduces a difficult, and little known part of U.S. history to young children.

Parent/teacher guide: There is a free parent/teacher guide available at http://www.portageandmainpress.com/product/parentteacher-guide-for-when-we-were-alone/. The guide includes some talking points, prepping ideas, and follow-up discussions.

When We Were Alone
by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett
Highwater Press, 2016
ISBN 978

Let’s Talk About Race

This book is a great way to begin talking to children about the subject of race and prejudice. It encourages everyone to look beyond the outside of a person to discover who they really are.

Picture book, non-fiction, empathy
Interest Level: K-5; Reading Level: 3.0
5 out of 5 stars

Julius Lester does a great job presenting the idea of race and how sometimes people form opinions about others before getting to know them. The narrator begins with:

I am a story.
So are you. So is everyone.
My story begins the same way yours does:
“I was born on ——.”

After sharing favorite color and hobbies and other tidbits, the narrator mentions that he is black. He mentions that sometimes people think they are better than someone because of how much money their parents make or the size of their house…or the color of their skin…but those stories aren’t true. The true story is what you can feel if you press your cheekbone or arm. You feel bones underneath. If everyone took off their skin, underneath we are all the same.
“Do I look at you and think I know your story when I don’t even know your name? Or do I look at you and wonder…” This is a powerful and very important question for everyone to ponder, but especially children. If we ever want to make the world a place where everyone is valued, young people must ask themselves these questions and develop empathy for those who are different.

Julius Lester has written a very powerful book that is meant to get children thinking about the topic of race and prejudice. His words are powerful but do not condemn the reader for not thinking about this issue. He merely invites the reader to explore and consider. I believe that every school and public library should have a copy of this book. The interactive nature of the text would make for a very good read-aloud experience.

Let’s Talk About Race
by Julius Lester; illustrated by Karen Barbour
HarperCollins Publishers, 2005
ISBN 0-06-028598-2

The Journey

Children see and hear stories on the news about immigrants, refugees, and border walls. This book is a great way to open up a candid conversation without scaring children.

Picture book, fiction, refugees
Interest Level: grades 1-4; Reading Level: 3.7
5 out of 5 stars

In the author’s note at the back of the book, Francesca Sanna states:

Almost every day on the news we hear the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ but we rarely ever speak to or hear the personal journeys that they have had to take. This book is a collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.”

Sanna’s story begins with a family of four creating sandcastles on the beach. Upon turning the page, the beach scene has been transformed by the words, “The war began.” A dark shadow that appears to have menacing hands is sweeping across the the beach scene, shattering buildings, and causing the family to flee off of the page. The image is powerful, yet not overwhelming to younger readers.
The father is killed in the war and the mother and two children end up having to flee their home to search for safety. The following images show the small family traveling by car, hiding in delivery trucks, and finally traveling by bicycle until they reach the border. The narrator, who is one of the two children, delivers an important message by stating that “the further we go…the more we leave behind.” This is another instance where adults will understand the multiple meanings and deep implications behind the words and images, but young children will not be overwhelmed.

Guards try to keep the family from climbing the border wall and overly large figures chase the family through a dark, fairy-tale like forest. An unknown man takes money to help them over the wall and then the dark images disappear and is replaced with sunlight and feelings of hope. The journey is not over and the family travels by boat and then train hoping to find a new home “where we can be safe and begin our story again.”

Children see and hear stories on the news about immigrants, refugees, and border walls. This book is a great way to open up a candid conversation without scaring children. Parents or teachers can talk about why people must flee their homes and then present some general information about the difficulties of this journey for families. This is a great book for building empathy for the plight of refugees by allowing children to connect with the voice of the young narrator.

The Journey
by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye Books, 2016
ISBN 978-1-909263-99-4

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is a book about racial inequality and injustices, but it is also a complex story about love, family, and survival. This is a must-read book for anyone over the age of 14. Bring Kleenex.

Chapter book, realistic fiction
Interest level: Young adult, ages 14 and up
5 out of 5 stars

Angie Thomas is a debut author who has crafted a well-written novel that takes a look at racial issues in America. Thomas has given a voice and a story to the Black Lives Matter movement that has the ability to reach people of different races, no matter the cultural space you occupy.

Starr is the 16-year-old main character of the story. She exists in two different cultures. The location of her home is in the ghetto where she is known as “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store.” The other part of her life exists in her mostly-white private school, where she tries to fit in by making sure she doesn’t sound “ghetto.” Rarely do her two different worlds intersect.

One night a childhood friend is giving her a ride home from a party. The scene in the car is warm and sweet as these two people who have drifted away reconnect over childhood memories. Khalil is concerned about getting her home and away from the trouble of the party. As the lights of a police car flash through the back window, the entire tone of the scene changes. Starr begins reciting the protocol that her parents drilled into her from the age of 12…what to do if you encounter the police. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”

As a parent with two white children, I have never had that talk with my children. Never even occurred to me that anyone had to have that talk with their children until about six years ago when I read about it. That would be the blessing of white privilege: not assuming that if my child is pulled over for a traffic violation that there is even the remote possibility he or she will end up dead.

Khalil and Starr are treated like criminals from the minute the officer stops the car. As a reader, you watch the scene escalate, unable to halt the horror you know is coming, until Khalil is shot dead as he tries to make sure that Starr is doing okay.

This part of Starr’s story we see constantly in the news. In fact, just yesterday, a story emerged from Georgia that shows video of a man with his hands up being punched and, when handcuffed, stomped on by police officers: http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/14/us/georgia-gwinnett-county-officers-fired-video-trnd/index.html. Or you can watch this video of an unarmed black man who was shot while lying down with his hands in the air http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/florida-cop-charged-manslaughter-shooting-autistic-man-s-unarmed-therapist-n745716.

What Thomas has done is take the reader into the lives of Starr and Khalil. To the reader, they are not two unknown people that the police and media can portray as problems that were going to die one way or another. We, the reader, are in the car with them. We know how Khalil is being protective and helping Starr. We know how terrified she is. We watch Khalil as he is shot and realize that Starr can’t save him. And then we sit with her as the blood leaves his body and the officer points the gun at her.

I truly believe that you cannot read this book and come out unchanged. I believe that Black Lives Matter; I did before I read The Hate U Give. My understanding of the world was even further enlightened by reading Angie Thomas’ book.

I never noticed before how the media will dig into the past of the black victims of white violence, even if it is irrelevant to the incident, and broadcast any negative they can find. Take Timothy Caughman, killed on the street in Manhattan by a sword-wielding white supremacist. The killer admitted to killing Caughman for no other reason than he was black. Yet the media, reporting on Caughman’s death, included the information that 15 years ago he had been arrested. You can read more thoughts on this case here: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/king-no-place-attacks-character-timothy-caughman-article-1.3007995. Caughman’s arrest 15 years ago played no part in his death. So why report it? Would it have been reported if Caughman was white?

Angie Thomas sheds light on so many issues of racial inequality and systemic racism: police brutality, victim blaming, poverty, gangs, code-switching, bias, stereotypes — and she does it all within a story that has characters that are deep and complicated and so very human. Readers will relate to the characters in the story.

The Hate U Give is a story that celebrates family and the strength of communities. It shows that human beings are more than their past mistakes. And The Hate U Give is a celebration that an author of color was able to speak out in her #ownvoice. An authentic voice of someone who is opening up her community to the world with the hope of making this a better place.

In an interview in New York magazine, Thomas was asked why she thinks there has been an increase in the publication of books that deal with racial issues, and this is her response:

These are the issues that teenagers are vocal about. They’re finding their voices. We’d be doing them an injustice if we weren’t giving them the mirror to see themselves in. These kids will be the ones to run this country. In one year, two years, four years, they’re going to be voters. If we start building empathy in them, maybe some of the things we have to fight for now, we won’t have to in the future.

I am hoping that Thomas’ successful novel will inspire more people to write diverse books that share their #ownvoice. I hope that enough young adults read books like The Hate U Give so that we can change the future of the country with empathy.

The Hate U Give is a book about racial inequality and injustices, but it is also a deep story about love, family, and survival. I am so thankful that Angie Thomas wrote this book. May she get all the love at awards time!

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, a imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

The Princess and the Warrior

Duncan Tonatiuh crafts his own version of the origin story of the two volcanoes that are located just outside of Mexico City.

Picture book, folktale
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 2.9
Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor, 2017
5 out of 5 stars

Outside of Mexico City there are two majestic volcanoes, Iztaccihautl and Popcatepetl. Duncan Tonatiuh tells the legend of their origin in a well-crafted picture book that pays tribute to the images found in the ancient Mixtec codices. In the Author’s Note in the back of the book, Tonatiuh outlines the research behind the creation of the book, and a bibliography is included.

The story focuses on the love between a beautiful and kind princess named Izta and a brave soldier named Popoca. Many suitors traveled from far away trying to woo Izta with expensive and rare gifts, but she was not interested in them. Even though she was a princess, she preferred to spend her time with people in the field, teaching them poetry.

Popoca comes to see her and promises to love her for who she is and to always stay by her side no matter what. They fall in love, but the king wants Popoca to prove himself worthy to marry his daughter. So Popoca goes off to battle an enemy tribe. As the enemy is about to be defeated, they hatch a plan to defeat Popoca’s spirit and send word to Izta that he has died in battle. Believing this lie, she drinks a potion and falls into a sleep that she cannot be awoken from.

When Popoca returns victorious, he is distraught to find his love could not wake up, so he carries her to the top of a mountain believing that the cool air will revive her. As he laid her on the mountaintop, he knelt beside her and refused to move, even when the snows came and covered them both.

In time, where once there was a princess with her true love by her side, two volcanoes emerged. One is known as Iztaccihuatl, or sleeping woman. The other one is known as Popocatepetl, or smoky mountain. Iztaccihuatl continues to sleep. But Popocateptl spews ashes and smoke from time to time, as if attempting to wake his sleeping princess.

Throughout the story, Tonatiuh has included some foreign words in the Nahuatl language, since that is the language that Popoca and Izta would have spoken. A glossary is in the back to provide translations.

This is a well-done origin story that should be included with any lesson on stories in the oral tradition. Tonatiuh’s attention to detail with regard to the illustrations and language make this book stand above others.

The Princess and the Warrior
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4197-2130-4

The Bear Who Wasn’t There

This is a laugh out loud story that is missing its main character! Will bear every show up?

Picture book, fiction, humorous
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 1.5
5 out of 5 stars

Spoiler alert! The duck on the cover tips off readers to the whole problem in this story — the bear, who is the main character, never shows up. So how can this book be successful? LeUyen Pham has crafted an adorable menagerie of characters that help the reader look for the elusive bear.

The story begins on the cover with the title, The Bear Who Wasn’t There, and a duck announcing that the bear never shows up. Then the story is carried through on every page that follows, including the endpapers inside the covers, and the title page.

The reader and characters in the story break through the fourth wall and work together (most of the time) to try to find the bear. A jealous duck has recently written his own book, The Duck Who Showed Up and works very hard to convince the reader that his story is the one to read…who needs a bear anyway?!

The story abounds in word play and humorous situations. As the reader turns the page and enters a room with a sign guaranteeing the bear is inside, we discover instead that a prankster mouse is playing a trick on a giraffe on the toilet, who happens to be reading the duck’s book.
The author/illustrator herself even makes an appearance and tries to find bear. The story follows the bear’s footprints all the way to the back endpapers.

This book is delightful and would make an excellent and fun read-aloud.

The Bear Who Wasn’t There
by LeUyen Pham
Roaring Brook Press, 2016
ISBN 978-1-59643-970-2

Goodnight Everyone

Stunning colors illustrate this brilliant goodnight story. It is an excellent choice to read at bedtime!

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 2.1
5 out of 5 stars

Chris Haughton’s illustrations really carry the weight of this story about a little bear who isn’t quite ready to go to bed when the other forest animals are.


With rich shades of blues, reds, and purples, Haughton has us follow Little Bear at bedtime. I love this illustration as it shows the contrast between the text, “everyone is sleepy” and the wide eyes of Little Bear that just peek through a bush. At this point, the story begins to follow a pattern. First, all the animals are sleepy and yawn. We see the same repeated pattern of words as we witness the mice, rabbits, deer, and finally Great Big Bear take settling breaths and all yawn. Except for Little Bear. Then the same type of pattern repeats, this time with little bear visiting each group to see if they want to play, only to be told “we’re too tired.” Finally, sleep, and the deepening darkness of night catch of to Little Bear and he mimics the stretch and yawn pattern of Great Big Bear from earlier. The final pattern that the reader goes through shows each family asleep and tells them goodnight. The recurring patterns and order of animals is a calming aspect of the story, and lends itself well to bedtime reading. Alert readers of picture books will notice other details of Haughton’s illustrations that make this story truly brilliant.


When we say goodnight to the mice, we see how the soft snore of one of the mice blows a fluffy dandelion seed into the night sky. Alert readers can follow the path of that seed in each of the following illustrations. But that isn’t where the brilliance stops.

Make sure to pay special attention to the endpapers inside the book cover. The front endpaper shows the constellations when the night sky is in the southern hemisphere. If you look closely at the illustration of the earth and location of the moon, you can see the shapes of the animals in the story and see that they appear to be awake. The back endpaper illustrates the opposite — the night sky in the northern hemisphere, and the animals on the earth appear to be asleep. Haughton has also highlighted the Little Bear and Great Bear where the constellation appears in the night sky. I love the idea that the reader has put Little Bear and Great Big Bear to sleep in the story, and now we can see them sleeping in the night sky.

Look very, very closely at the endpapers and you can also see that dandelion seed! The path it takes as it floats into the night sky can be traced from the back endpaper right back around to the front endpaper, where it can be seen floating to earth. Those tiny details, and the fact that every part of the book is used to complete the story make this a masterpiece.

Goodnight Everyone
by Chris Haughton
Candlewick Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7636-9079-3