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.”
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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.
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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

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.
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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

This house, once

This book takes the concrete idea of looking at what materials go into the making of a house and turns the experience into something dreamy and magical. This book is meant to read aloud to children.

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.1
4 out of 5 stars


The story begins with a simple image of a door on a white background. The poetic style of the text reads “This door was once a colossal oak tree about three hugs around and as high as the blue.” When the reader turns the page a beautiful watercolor, wordless spread shows the door in place on a large oak tree that reaches through the clouds into the sky.

This alternate style of images, juxtaposing different parts of a house and their location of origin in nature continues for most of the story. Once a slate roof is added to the home and the structure is complete, we see how the different parts have come together to form a home that provides refuge and warmth to the people and animals inside.

At the end of the book in a Note to Readers, Deborah Freedman lets us know that the home in the story is made of the same materials as her real home, and then she asks, “Where do you live? What was your home, once?”

This book is meant to appeal to younger children, but the independent reading level is around 4th grade. For young children, this book will be best if read aloud to them, and then together, an adult and child can ponder how and with what materials their place of residence was made.

Freeman’s illustrations are incredibly beautiful, bringing a dreamy and magical quality that matches the poetic style of the text. This is an quiet story with a cozy feel.


This house, once
by Deborah Freedman
Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-4284-8

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

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.
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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.

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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

When Penny Met POTUS

A young girl accompanies her mom to work and hopes to meet her mysterious boss, the POTUS. She tries to imagine what POTUS must be like.

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 3.6
3 out of 5 stars


In this story we meet Penny, who is going to work with her mom at a “big white house. Her boss’s name is POTUS. Isn’t that a funny name?” Penny doesn’t know who POTUS is, so she begins to imagine who might have this weird name.
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Her mom gets busy, so Penny sets off on her own and asks each staff person she finds if they know where POTUS is. Through these interactions, readers learn a little about the different jobs around the White House.

Finally Penny meets up with POTUS, and is a little disappointed to realize that POTUS is …. human. The twist to the story that older readers will get, is that POTUS is a woman. For the older reader, it seems that the big unveiling of what makes this POTUS unique should be the person’s gender, but Penny acts like POTUS being female is to be expected.

For young readers, they will learn a common acronym for the President of the United States, as well as a little information about the different people who maintain the physical White House. Some day the fact that POTUS is female will be irrelevant, but until then, the ending is a surprising twist.


by Rachel Ruiz; illustrated by Melissa Manwill
Capstone Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-62370-758-3