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.
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“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

Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures

Animal Ark is a visual treat that combines animal photographs with haiku poetry.

Picture book, nonfiction, poetry
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.3
4 out of 5 stars


This is a very interesting picture book collaboration between Joel Sartore, founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, and Kwame Alexander, the Newbery medal winning poet. While I was first interested in reading this book because of my love for all things Kwame Alexander writes, I must admit that I think the photographs steal the spotlight.
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All of the animals are shown with either a white or black background. This lets the reader really focus on some of the details that can be noticed in the close-up photographs. The other thing the lack of background does is renders each animal at roughly the same size. Frogs, birds, tigers, millipedes all appear the same size. This was intentional on the photographer’s part as he didn’t want any animal to appear larger or more important than the others. It reflects the idea that all creatures are equally important to the world.

In the Note from the Photographer at the back of the book, Sartore states:

By introducing the entire world to thousands of photographs of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even insects, I hope we can get everyone following, liking, texting, tweeting, and even talking about this wondrous world of ours…I want people around the world to look these animals in the eye, and then fall in love with creatures as dazzling as a pheasant or as odd as an octopus. And once we love something, won’t we do anything to save it?

Alexander has provided the poetry to narrate the story of the different animals. This is not a picture book that is meant to educate about the animals that we see, but is instead meant to make us feel and connect us to them. For most of the book, each animal has a three-line, haiku-style poem that captures the essence of the animal. In the Note from the Writer, Alexander makes a connection between poetry and photographs:

Both have the ability to bypass the skin and enter through the heart, transforming what is often difficult to convey into something universal.

Located roughly in the middle of the book is a longer narrative style poem, surrounded by small photos of more animals. This poem is meant to connect the reader, a human, with the world of the animals and implores us to “take care of our home.”

Animal Ark is a young reader companion book to the larger work, Photo Ark. Children will love to look at the stunning photographs, where they will notice new details about even the most familiar of animals. The short poems that accompany each photograph enhance the mood of the animal image and sound wonderful when read aloud. The longer poem on the full-page gatefold might be over the heads of very young children, but could be used with older children to open conversations about extinct and endangered animals.

A funny, blooper-style outtakes video showing the photographer at work can be found here: https://shop.nationalgeographic.com/product/books/books/animals-and-nature/the-photo-ark. This would be a hit at a read aloud of the story!

More information about the Photo Ark project can be found on the National Geographic website: http://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/photo-ark/


Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures
Photographs by Joel Sartore; Words by Kwame Alexander
National Geographic, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4263-2767-4

Around America to win the vote: two suffragists, a kitten, and 10,000 miles

One of the lesser known stories about some of the suffragists who worked to persuade others that women deserved the right to vote.

Picture book, non-fiction, informational
Candlewick Press, 2016
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 3.3


Published in 2016, this was a timely book that coincided with the first woman candidate for president of the United States. The author, Mara Rockliff, researched news articles from 1916 that told of two women and a cat who drove a yellow car from New York City to California, and back. Today that doesn’t sound so newsworthy, but in 1916 there were not regular gas stations and travel by car was not always easy or reliable. Nell Richardson and Alice Burke drove across the country trying to incite crowds with “Votes for Women!”

Overall I liked reading about these two suffragists that I had not heard of before. This book can be used as a way to introduce women’s voting rights to children.

Unfortunately, while the women’s journey is interesting and I admire their perseverance, the story is somewhat weak in stressing the voting rights aspect of the journey. I felt the car and the difficulties of transportation at the time was the central focus of the story, and the campaigning the women were doing was not stressed enough.


Around American to win the vote: two suffragists, a kitten, and 10,000 miles
Candlewick Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7636-7893-7

Radiant Child: the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

An amazing picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat that focuses on his life as a boy and his love of art.

Radiant child : the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
by Steptoe, Javaka
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-21388-2
Picture book, biography
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 29 cm
Dewey: 740; Int Lvl: K-5; Rd Lvl: 5.2
Lexile measure: 1050
5 out of 5 stars


Radiant Child is a biography geared to young readers that introduces Jean-Michel Basquiat and focuses on his early life. As a young boy, Jean-Michel grew up in Brooklyn, creating drawings from the moment he woke up until he went to bed and dreamed of images.

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.

He was heavily influenced by his Puerto Rican mother who would take him to to museums, draw with him on the floor, and help him see art in the everyday world around him. His mother had a mental illness and was removed from their home. He spent the rest of her life visiting and sharing his artwork with her.

As a teenager, Jean-Michel moved to New York City and would stay with friends while creating artwork first as a graffiti artist, but then creating collage-style works for gallery exhibitions. He would paint and collage on “anything he could find.” The same words that described his art as a child, continue to describe his professional artwork:

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.

Javaka Steptoe has created a book that should be held as the standard for children’s picture book biographies. He has selected an interesting, yet lesser-known individual who plays a significant part in the modern art movement. Steptoe states in an author’s note in the back

Basquiat’s success seemed to me to begin an era of inclusion and diversity in fine arts where there had been little to none. This meant as a young African American artist coming up that my chances of having my voice heard and achieving mainstream success were majorly expanded.

In addition to an interesting person, Steptoe has created captivating illustrations that were inspired by Basquiat and are interpretations of his work. This provides the reader with a sense of what Basquiat’s art was like on each page of the story. There is further information in the back of the book that provides more details about Basquiat, including information about his adult life and early death. Steptoe also clues readers in to recurring motifs and symbolism in Basquiat’s paintings and provides an author’s note to detail what he hopes readers understand from his book. While I find Steptoe’s illustrations captivating and engaging, I would have liked the information in the back of the book to include at least one of Basquiat’s original works for comparison.

Overall, this book is an exemplary picture book biography that is perfect for young readers. It could be used in art classes to begin a creative session where students create art using found materials from their environment. In the opening “About This Book,” Steptoe states that “I invite my readers to create using the materials, people, and places in their environment.” This book is meant to be an active part of expressing creativity.

Gravity

This fascinating book reads like a child’s fantasy, but is a great introduction to gravity for young children!

Gravity
by Jason Chin
A Neal Porter book, Roaring Brook Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-59643-717-3
Picture book, nonfiction, narrative
32 unnumbered pages : color illustrations ; 23 x 29 cm
Dewey: 531; Int Lvl: K-3; Rd Lvl: 5.3
YHBA 2016-2017 picture book nominee
5 out of 5 stars


This book is a wonderful hybrid between a fantastical story and an informational text. It is a great way to introduce the concept and study of gravity to young children. The story begins up in the sky and through a series of five pages explains that “gravity…makes…objects…fall…to earth.” The object falling to earth turns out to be a book about gravity.

The book falls to the spot where a young boy is playing on the beach with a toy astronaut and rocket ship. The lesson on gravity continues with learning that “without gravity, everything would float away.” As with the book being pulled to earth as we read about that gravity fact, everything on the beach now floats away as we learn about lack of gravity. The young boy manages to hold onto a boulder, and the reader now accompanies the astronaut, rocket ship, and other beach items as they float into space.
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The book then explains that gravity keeps the sun, earth, and moon in alignment and ends with restating that gravity makes objects fall to earth. The twist to the story is that the spaceman and astronaut have not fallen back to the boy on the beach, but have landed amidst young girls operating a lemonade stand.

Chin’s whimsical and close-up, super-real, style of illustrations, combined with the fanciful story, remind me of Bill Thomson books: Chalk, Fossil, and The Typewriter. Be sure to read the final page, where we see the boy on the beach in shock as he catches a pitcher of lemonade that falls from the sky. The boy and girls have inherited each others’ items that defied gravity. Once readers understand the switch that occurs, they need to go back to other images in the story and they will see hints they might have missed during the first reading.

The story itself is not going to replace any classroom lessons about gravity, but the book would make a fun introduction or accompaniment to such a unit. There is additional information about gravity in the back of the book, as well as a bibliography.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Erdos

A fascinating story about a quirky mathematician whose collaborations changed the world of mathematics.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbably Life of Paul Erdos
by Deborah Heiligman, pictures by LeUyen Pham
Roaring Brook Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-59643-307-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Dewey: 510.92, biography
Description: 37 pages : color illustrations ; 26 cm
YHBA intermediate nominee, 2015-2016
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 1.8
4 out of 5 stars


I feel dual purpose books are very effective and are appropriate for many different genres. The idea of entertaining several different levels of maturity at once is something that children’s cartoons have been doing forever. If you’ve ever sat through a Disney movie as an adult, you will notice that young children laugh at different things than the adults do.

In a similar way, a book can also appeal to multiple audiences. The Boy Who Loved Math: the improbably life of Paul Erdos is a picture book that has a first/second grade reading level and is meant to appeal to lower elementary age children. The text and style of illustrations tell the story of a quirky boy who loved math, but had difficulties in most other areas of life. Children will love the part of the story where he learns to butter his bread as an adult.

The author and illustrator haven’t just created a picture book for elementary age readers, however. The many pages of author and illustrator notes in the back add depth to the book and make it usable up through high school. It is almost like solving a puzzle to go back through the illustrations and locate all the different types of prime numbers that have been included.

By appealing to multiple age levels, The Boy Who Loved Math is a book that can be used to share interests between adults and children. I feel that the wider a book can be read and shared, the longer life and greater impact that book will have. What is impressive about The Boy Who Loved Math is that there are not many books about famous mathematicians. Most don’t make for very interesting stories.

The Boy Who Loved Math was nominated for a 2015-2016 Young Hoosier Book Award. I am guessing that this book was probably nominated by an adult who felt this was a worthwhile book for children. Most children would not seek this book out on their own. By appealing to a wide audience, this book was nominated for an award and was seen by a larger audience than it would have if the illustrations and back notes were not as extensive.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the creation of The Snowy Day

A Poem for Peter is an outstanding work of narrative nonfiction that functions as both biography, and background information for Ezra Jack Keat’s most well-known picture book, The Snowy Day.

A Poem for Peter: the story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day
by Andrea Davis Pinkney; pictures by Lou Fancer & Steve Johnson
Viking, 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-28768-2
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative verse
52 pages : color illustrations ; 25 x 28 cm
Interest Level: grades 2 and up; Reading Level: 3.2
5 out of 5 stars


In A Poem for Peter, Andrea Davis Pinkney has created a book that pays homage to Keats’ award winning book, A Snowy Day, as well as provides a biography of the fascinating man who created Peter and shared his snowy interlude with the world.

As a biography, Pinkney uses a narrative verse style to tell the story of Keats’ early life, from birth until he wrote A Snowy Day in 1962. This style of writing makes an excellent read-aloud experience, and is an engaging way to introduce younger children to the idea of reading a biography for pleasure. Many students do not think of biographies for pleasure reading, but this book would make an excellent example of nonfiction books that read like fiction.

A Poem for Peter starts with a biography of Keats, who was born Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz. His parents were Polish immigrants who struggled to provide for the family in Brooklyn, New York. From a very young age, Ezra was a gifted artist, but his father was “worried about his son’s dream. Feared for what he couldn’t see. An artist was a strange, impractical thing to be. You couldn’t earn a decent wage giving imagination wings.” Secretly though, his father would save money to buy paint for Ezra, who also had the support of teachers and friends.

The day before Ezra was to graduate from high school, his father died of a heart attack, and his dreams of attending art school went away. Part of what makes A Poem for Peter such a wonderful tribute to Keats is that the illustrations are created using the collage style that Keats himself used in his books. The image that is on the page telling about his father’s death, is incredibly powerful:
Untitled You can see the cap and gown, as well as the road that he was all set to travel, disintegrating into fragments. The story continues with Keats working odd jobs to earn money, joining the Air Force during WWII, and then working on comic books, until finally he is given the opportunity to create his own picture book. Pinkney has included a thread throughout the story that lets us see how all of Keats’ life has led him to create Peter and his snowy escapades. The illustrators even include original source documents to show where Keats got the idea for Peter: Untitled
For over 20 years, Keats carried this clipping from Life magazine, until he found the perfect use for the image of the expressive young boy.

I have always loved the simple, yet timeless story that is told in The Snowy Day. The joy of playing in the snow as a child was perfectly conveyed by Ezra Jack Keats using a collage style for illustrations. Peter’s story is one that all children can relate to and that brings back fond memories for adults.

What is truly amazing about The Snow Day is that it features a black child who is meant to represent the common experiences of childhood. In 1962, Keats noticed that the main characters in books that he was being paid to illustrate were all white. Keats had this to say about Peter:

“Then began an experience that turned my life around,” he wrote, “working on a book with a black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along. Years before I had cut from a magazine a strip of photos of a little black boy. I often put them on my studio walls before I’d begun to illustrate children’s books. I just loved looking at him. This was the child who would be the hero of my book.” (from Ezra Jack Keats Foundation: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ezras-life/)

I highly recommend this book to all teachers and librarians, especially for upper elementary and older. This book, through both the biographical story, as well as the additional information in the back — Ezra’s Legacy; Keats, the Collage Poet; list of books written and illustrated by Keats; and a list of sources — provides a complete picture of what life was like during 1962 and why The Snow Day was such an important contribution to children’s literature.

Lesson ideas
School librarians could open a study of Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day at the beginning of winter. The librarian could read A Poem for Peter to build inquiry, then follow up with a reading of The Snowy Day. Then, using ideas from the Novel Engineering website (http://www.novelengineering.org/books/the-snowy-day), the librarian could lead students through a problem-based learning activity that has them solving some of the problems Peter faces in the story using engineering design process. What could students design and create that would keep the snowball from melting in his coat pocket? Is there a machine that could help Peter participate in the snowball fight with the older kids?

Ezra Jack Keats Foundation lesson plans and activities: http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/ezras-books/the-snowy-day/
There are lots of fun activities that can extend the story of The Snowy Day. There is a read-aloud of the story on this site as well. There is also an author’s biography that is intended for children, as well as quotes from famous people who share their memories of The Snowy Day.

Scholastic Ezra Jack Keats author study: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/collection/ezra-jack-keats-author-study
This site includes extension activities and lessons plans. There is also a science themed lesson plan for The Snowy Day.