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

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.