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.

Who Am I? An Animal Guessing Game

Very young children will enjoy guessing who each animal is from clues and close-up illustrations.

Picture book, nonfiction
Interest level: Pre-K
4 out of 5 stars


I am a big fan of Steve Jenkins’ collage illustrations. The minute detail that he can depict with paper just amazes me.

This is a nonfiction book that is geared to very young children. Seven animals are featured in the book. Each animal starts with a page of assorted details and close-ups of animal parts. These sections are titled “I have…” and end with “Who am I?” The page is turned to reveal the animal and a declaration of “I’m a ____!” Most of the featured animals are fairly easy to guess, so that is why I recommend this book for very young children. Older children, elementary age, will not be challenged.

The back of the book contains further information about each animal, as well as a resource section to find out more information. This book could possibly be used with kindergarten or first graders who are doing beginning animal research.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson

Picture book, biography
Interest level: elementary and middle school
5 out of 5 stars


It is well-known that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but this book does not focus on that part of his life. The author has chosen to focus on Robinson’s time in the military and the stand he took against racism during that time.

This story is important for children so they can see that Robinson was more than a gifted athlete, and that he faced racism while serving in the U.S. military. It makes him a multidimensional civil rights icon.


The United States v. Jackie Robinson
written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Balzer + Bray, 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-2287847

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Picture book, autobiography
Interest level: grades 1 through 5
5 out of 5 stars


This is the autobiography of a young boy who taught himself how to turn trash into a working windmill to generate electricity and pump water for his family’s farm in Malawi, Africa. During a famine, his family can no longer afford to pay for William Kamkwamba to attend high school. He discovers the local public library, where his fascination with machines and how they work leads him to read about windmills. His perseverance and ingenuity enable him to help his family and village learn to survive the seasons of drought.

Kamkwamba’s story is a story in perseverance and using resources around you. The story makes a perfect addition to a maker space and is ideal for a real-world example of the engineering design process.


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; pictures by Elizabeth Zunon
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012
ISBN 978-0-8037-3511-8

Ada’s violin: the story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay

This is an amazing story about a young group of magicians who discovered compassion, creativity, and music among the trash in a landfill in Paraguay.

Picture book, non-fiction, informational
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 4.0
5 out of 5 stars


Ada’s Violin is an absolutely amazing story of a young girl who lives in Cateura, Paraguay. Her town is the main garbage dump for the capital city of Asuncion, and her family works in the landfill, picking through the trash and hauling away items that can be recycled and sold.

For the youth of Cateura, there is not much to do so gangs and fighting are a way of life. Until Favio Chavez comes to town and offers to teach the children to play music. There are not enough instruments to go around, so he got the people in the community to help him make instruments out of trash they could recycle from the landfill.

Word of this amazing Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay began to spread, and the children were invited to travel all over to play. They have performed in concerts around the world, and even opened for Metallica.

Sally Wern Comport’s collage illustrations perfectly fit the tone and style of the book.

The back of the book contains an Author’s Note with more details about the Recycled Orchestra, a photo, and sources for more information.

Book trailer: https://vimeo.com/194621162

Ada’s Violin: The story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
by Susan Hood; illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 9781481430951

The playbook: 52 rules to aim, shoot, and score in this game called life

Kwame Alexander has written a motivational book that combines a stunning visual design with inspirational quotes and motivation stories of successful people.

Motivational book, nonfiction
Interest Level: grades 4 and up; Reading Level: 6.7
5 out of 5 stars


The hook that will draw many children to this book will be the sports theme. The colors used throughout are orange, black, and white — the same colors that were used in Alexander’s Newbery winning book, The Crossover. The end papers are raised and provide the textural feel of a basketball. There are many black and white photos of people playing sports. The book is even divided into four quarters, like a basketball game.

Each quarter of the book features a different inspirational theme: grit, motivation, focus, and teamwork and resilience. Halftime is a brief piece about passion, the warm-up goes over the rules, and overtime covers tenacity.

However, for all of the sports feel, this book is meaningful to a much larger audience than just the sports fan. The book features quotes from famous individuals, along with further words of wisdom provided by Alexander. While many are sport related, the meaning for most can also be used to talk about academics or life in general.

Rule #35
There is no magic to achievement. It’s really about hard work, choices, and persistence.
–Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States of America

Brief biographical sketches feature Wilma Rudolph, LeBron James, Pele, Venus and Serena Williams, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All sports are covered in the book, male and females are equally represented, and athletes and non-athletes are included.
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The book is visually appealing and each two-page spread looks like an inspirational poster. This book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Reluctant readers will like the visuals and limited text. Sports fans and athletes will be drawn to the theme and athletic quotes and stories. Teachers or parents can give this to students who may need some inspiration to get through tough times in school.

For maker space areas in libraries or schools, there are many quotes that focus on overcoming failure. Since part of the purpose of maker spaces is to encourage children to step out of their comfort zone and try new things, we need to let them know that failure is part of the learning process.

Rule #22
If you’re afraid to fail, then yo’re probably going to fail.
–Kobe Bryant, five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers</blockquote
Kwame Alexander has written another book that will appeal to a diverse group of people.


The playbook: 52 rules to aim, shoot, and score in this game called life
by Kwame Alexander; photographs by Thai Neave
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
ISBN 978-0-544-57097-9

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.

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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