Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

Stunning illustrations and characters of color make this Cinderella-story stand above the rest.

by John Steptoe
Caldecott Honor Book
Picture book, fiction
Interest level: elementary
5 out of 5 stars

John Steptoe’s detailed and rich illustrations grab your attention from the very start. For me, they turned an okay version of a Cinderella story into a more worthwhile reading experience. His intricate lines and rich colors match the elegant style of the tale he was inspired to write.

I am somewhat unclear about how authentic Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is to the genre of African tales. A paragraph at the start of the book indicates that it is merely the inspiration for Steptoe’s book, so I would caution against using this book as an example of an African folktale.

I do see that it would be a great addition to a study of Cinderella-stories. The story of conflict between siblings to be chosen by royalty is seen in many children’s books, but the main characters are usually white. Steptoe features black characters and the image of African royalty, which needs to be seen in more folktales and literature studies.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Lilly Ann Granderson was a slave who understood the power of being able to read, and risked her life teach other slaves. This is an important view of the pre-Civil war life of slaves that is perfect for U.S. history classes from elementary school on up.

Picture book, biography, nonfiction
by Janet Halfmann; illustrated by London Ladd
Interest level: Kindergarten and up
4 out of 5 stars

Janet Halfmann, the author of Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School, did a lot of historical and genealogical research to obtain as many facts as possible about Lilly Ann Granderson. Lilly Ann’s story helps young readers see that there were laws and many ways that slave owners used to maintain a position of power.

The strength of Midnight Teacher is that it tells the true story of a woman who was resilient and persevered despite threat to her life. Showing how slaves toiled all day in the fields and then snuck away to learn at night shows how strong the desire to learn was. The reference materials listed in the back of the book are another strength.

I do feel that the author glosses over some points and I wish that they had been explained with more realism. One example is when the text states, “When the adults weren’t watching, the master’s children often played school with her. They even found an old ragged blue-back speller for Lilly Ann to use and keep.” London Ladd’s illustration to accompany the text depicts Lilly Ann as unsmiling, as compared to the white children, with dirty and frayed clothing, no shoes, holding a ratty book.

I view the situation as the white children playing with Lilly Ann like a toy; not seeing her as a playmate, but like a doll to use in their make-believe. Suggesting they gave Lilly Ann the book to keep is problematic because I am guessing they just didn’t notice that she had it. The book was beat up and something they would cast away without a thought. I have problems with the reasoning that seems to persist in books about slaves, that suggests that household slaves were part of the family. While they may not have experienced the grueling, physical toil that marked the existence of field slaves, household slaves were still viewed as property and not people.

Another minor irritation is when describing the beginning of the Civil War, the author states that “President Abraham Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery.” While this is technically true, it is a vast generalization of Lincoln’s view of slavery and ignores the fact that he did not want to see slavery spread because of economic inequalities for white people and he, in fact, did not believe that black people were equal to whites. While this is a much larger discussion than is needed in the pages of Lilly Ann Granderson’s story for young readers, I do feel that authors need to start sharing more accurate statements about Lincoln’s views instead of repeating the mythology of Lincoln being anti-slavery.

My two complaints about glossed-over depictions of slavery should not diminish from the importance of this book in classrooms. Students need to know that there were other civil rights figures besides Harriet Tubman.

That is My Dream!

That Is My Dream! combines the beautiful gouache illustrations of Daniel Miyares with the 1924 Langston Hughes poem, Dream Variation, to depict a young child’s dream of racial equality and freedom.

Picture book, poetry
Interest level: grades 3 and up; Reading level: 3.0
5 out of 5 stars

Dream Variation is a two-stanza poem that was written by Langston Hughes in 1924. Both stanzas express the desire to feel free in the world, yet Miyares interprets each stanza of the poem in a slightly different way.

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

UntitledIn the first stanza, Miyares focuses on the idea of “the white day” and shows the inequalities faced by a young African-American boy and his family as they go about daily tasks. Images of the Black family are juxtaposed with images of a White family, clearly depicting the racial inequalities of the times — Black people sitting in the back of the bus behind White people; White children dancing and enjoying sweets while the Black children are quietly going to shop for groceries; and two children getting drinks at segregated water fountains.

Miyares has used the line “That is my dream!” at the end of the first stanza to transition into depicting the boy’s dream of the future. Miyares’s muted colors from the first stanza, transition into more brilliant colors and dreamlike images of all the children, Black and White, riding on different birds and playing together.

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

UntitledOne of the illustrations shows the two boys drinking together from a stream, which is in direct opposition to the earlier image of them drinking from the separate water fountains.
As the boy awakens from the dream of racial integration and harmony, Miyares depicts him holding onto a single feather. For the boy, and for readers in 2017, this feather represents the very real hope that racial equality is within our grasp.

It is disheartening to realize that Langston Hughes’s poem depicts a hope for racial equality that is still not realized today. Daniel Miyares has created a picture book that vividly depicts this dream and will hopefully infuse young readers with empathy and the desire for a better and equal future for all.

An Illustrator’s Note is in the back of the book that talks about Miyares’ thoughts about Dream Variation and what it means to him.

That is My Dream!
by Langston Hughes and Daniel Miyares
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2017
ISBN 978-0-399-55017-1

Save Me a Seat

Told in alternating points of view, this book offers several unique teaching points.

Chapter book, fiction, diversity
Interest Level: grades 4-6; Reading Level: 4.8
3 out of 5 stars

This book is told in alternating points of view between two fifth-grade boys: Ravi and Joe. Ravi and his family have just moved to America from Bangalore, India. Joe struggles in school and has Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP) which means he has “trouble listening” and attends therapy “to help my ears and my brain agree about what to listen to and what to tune out.” (p. 54)

At first the boys don’t seem to have much in common, but as they each tell their own stories, the readers are able to glimpse many connections they have before the boys in the story realize it themselves. For example, both boys love the whole class novel, Bud Not Buddy, they have doting mothers who take great pride in preparing their favorite foods, they are both outsiders in their class who struggle to communicate with others, and they are both being picked on by the class bully.

Teachers could read this story as a class read-aloud and find many unique topics that would be good for whole-class discussions:

*Both Ravi and Joe have trouble expressing themselves and communicating with peers. Joe because of his ADP is seen as different, and Ravi is misunderstood because of his accent and differences in culture.

*At first, Ravi’s teacher and classmates viewed him as unintelligent because he speaks with an accent.

*Joe’s ADP means he reacts different than his peers in loud situations.

*The format of the novel is each chapter is told in an alternating point of view.

The unique type of characters and alternating point of view are the strong points of Save My Seat. My one disappointment with the story are the stereotypical way the characters are portrayed. None of the characters display any depth outside of the typical role they were set up to play. Ravi is the smart Indian character who excels in math but is physical weak and unathletic. Joe is large and loves to eat. He is a pushover who never stands up for himself. Ravi’s grandparents live with their family and the grandmother constantly criticizes her daughter-in-law’s cooking.

The bully in the story is not original and every moment he is in the story he is doing nothing but tormenting Joe and Ravi. His character has no depth and exists only to antagonize the main characters. Teachers are oblivious to his constant bullying, such as when he hits Ravi with a fastball to the head when they were playing a game that was supposed to be underhand slow-pitch.

While I was personally turned off by the stereotyped character portrayals, their predictability could be something that young readers find relatable. Having a bully with no redeeming qualities provides a clear good guy/bad guy scenario and gives the reader a sense of justice at the end of the book.

Overall, there are good qualities to Save Me a Seat. I was hoping that the story would provide more of a glimpse into the intricate lives of a recent immigrant or a person with ADP, providing more depth and understanding about different cultures and conditions.

Save Me a Seat
by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Scholastic Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-84660-8

The Youngest Marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist

Audrey Faye Hendricks is one of the lesser-known figures of the civil rights movement. At the age of nine, she played a significant role in wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws.

Picture book, biography, Civil Rights movement
Interest level: grades 1-5; Reading level: 4.7
4 out of 5 stars

This is a strong addition to Civil Rights books that have been published for children in recent years. Children often only hear of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I feel it is important to expand the narrative to include some of the other human stories of the movement.

What makes Audrey Faye Hendricks unique and such a great story for children, is that she was nine years old when she first stood up to injustice and made a difference. Not only is this story important because it expands the scope of the Civil Rights movement for young readers, but because it gives them a hero that is their age. That’s an important message for children — seeking to end injustice is not restricted by age.

The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton are perfect. While they have a comic-like feel, they are still powerful. This scene of Hendricks in a jail cell is an evocative depiction of how it must have felt for Hendricks as the youngest marcher arrested. It was tough for her to remain strong in those conditions.

The back of the book includes an Author’s Note that tells more about Hendricks, including information about her adult life, a Civil Rights time line, a recipe for Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter, and a list of bibliographic sources.

This book is well-researched and presented in a sensitive manner for young readers. It helps children understand that there were many people involved in gaining civil rights for people of color, not just Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

The youngest marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist
by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-0070-1

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 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

The Storyteller

This exquisite and complex story is an original folktale that celebrates the importance of culture and storytelling.

The Storyteller
by Evan Turk
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4814-3518-5
Picture book, fiction, diversity
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations, color map ; 29 cm
Interest Level: grades 2-5; Reading Level: 4.2
4 out of 5 stars

Evan Turk has crafted an original folktale that is set in Morocco, on the edge of the Saharan desert. The story opens in modern times, with people becoming busier and less connected. Additionally, the life-giving water in the fountains starts to dry up. A thirsty young boy searches the city for water, and comes across an old storyteller, who tells him, “Sit down, my boy, and your thirst shall be quenched.” As the boy listens to the old man’s stories, his bowl fills with water. The storyteller always leaves the boy wanting to know more, which he must wait to hear the next day.

The stories that the boy hears are actually stories nested within stories that tell about a never-ending magical blue thread that is the source of water for the people. It takes very alert readers to keep the nested stories straight in their mind and not get them confused. Turk has crafted nested borders for his pages that can help distinguish which level of the story the reader is hearing.

Ultimately, the Sahara threatens the drought-stricken modern city, and the boy must distract the sandstorm by telling the stories he has just heard. The boy’s storytelling not only distracts the great Sahara, but also brings water back to the fountains, as more and more citizens gather around to hear the stories of the young hero.

An Author’s Note in the back of the book begins with this quote:

When a storyteller dies, a library burns.
–old Moroccan saying

Evan Turk has crafted a story that uses water for a metaphor for the storytelling culture of Morocco. Culture dries up when storytelling disappears. There has recently been a push in Morocco to revitalize this ancient craft and maintain their storytelling traditions.

The book’s illustrations are a combination of rich blues and browns. Turk’s images appear both modern and ancient at the same time. For example, a motor scooter and horse-drawn carriage are in the same scene; some characters are more ancient looking, and others quite modern.

The back of the book contains information for further reading about weaving and storytelling in Morocco.

I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars because the illustrations are a perfect fit for the tone of the story. The tale itself is unique and speaks to the need to retain ones culture. This is a well-crafted story, but because of its complex nesting of stories, it has a somewhat limited audience.

The book has a companion website at which offers further reading and background material.

There is also a book trailer: