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.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshal

This is an extremely well-written biography about a little known hero of the west. Bad News for Outlaws makes for an excellent read-aloud for older elementary classrooms, and is a great companion text for units on slavery, the Old West, or life after the Civil War.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshall
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Books, Minneapolis, 2009
ISBN 978-0-8225-6764-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2010; YHBA intermediate book nominee, 2011-2012
Description: 41 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 31 cm.
Dewey: 363.28
Interest Level: 3-6; Reading Level: 5.5
Lexile measure: 860
5 out of 5 stars

The story starts out with an exciting showdown which completely grabs the reader’s attention and draws them into the story of Bass Reeves — “Bass ducked his head, dove off his horse, and rolled to his feet just as a fourth bullet clipped his hat brim.”

Much of Bass Reeve’s story reads like a tall tale. From his imposing size to his impressive record capturing outlaws, Vaunda Nelson shares remarkable stories that bring this former slave and lawman to life. The tone of the text sounds like an old fashioned western, so the glossary in the back is helpful to young readers who are probably not familiar with phrases such as “didn’t cotton to,” which means didn’t like.

Christie’s illustrations are bold paintings that capture the vast and untamed land, as well as show Bass as a proud and impressive figure, in his signature black coat, hat, and badge.

The back of the book includes a glossary, timeline, suggestions for further reading, and a detailed bibliography. Nelson has done a thorough job researching Bass Reeves and has carefully documented as much dialogue and information as she can. This is important so that readers are not misled and know they are learning facts. There is also a very moving Author’s Note that talks about the importance of learning about a black hero of the Old West.

While the stories about chasing down outlaws is intriguing, this story also provides an introduction into the history of Indian Territory, as well as what life was like for slaves after the Civil War. This information is not glossed over, but is presented in a sensitive manner that is appropriate for young readers.

Additional Resources

Lesson Plan from Coretta Scott King Book Awards: http://www.ala.org/emiert/sites/ala.org.emiert/files/content/cskbookawards/CSK%20Discussion%20Guide1.pdf

Lesson Plan from Illinois School Library Media Association: http://www.islma.org/2012BluestemResources/BadNewsOutlaws.pdf

Lesson Plan from Social Studies Research and Practice: http://www.socstrpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/06536-Montgomery.pdf

Bass Reeves video (contains vintage photographs and reading of his obituary): https://youtu.be/bPJN62meSII

Dia de los Muertos

This nonfiction picture book is a festive introduction to the Mexican and Latin American holiday of Dia de los Muertos.

Dia de los Muertos
by Roseanne Greenfield Thong; pictures by Carles Ballesteros
Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8075-1566-2
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 23 x 29 cm
Picture book, nonfiction, diversity
Dewey: 394.266
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.7
4 out of 5 stars

It is important to respect the cultures and traditions of people in other parts of the world, and reading books that present accurate information in a fun and entertaining way is an excellent way to educate children. Many people who are not part of the Latin American or Mexican culture mistakenly believe that Dia de los Muertos is associated with the American holiday of Halloween. Dia de los Muertos by Roseanne Thong and Carles Ballesteros make this distinct holiday come to life so readers understand what makes it special.

Thong has used rhyming text, with interspersed Spanish words, to narrate the story of how one town celebrates Dia de los Muertos. The Spanish words are left to stand on their own; they are not defined in the narrative text. This works well in the story because in most cases the words are either recognizable because of their resemblance to the corresponding English word, such as “celebraciones,” or the illustrations provide visual clues to the word’s meaning.

The illustrations are colorful and festive, matching the tone of the text and the holiday itself. In the additional information in the back of the book, Thong notes that “the emphasis of this day is on the joy of life rather than the sadness of death.” The feeling of the holiday is conveyed well by the rhyming text and festive illustrations. Skulls are part of the holiday, and the illustrations are accurate, but in no way scary, in order to be appropriate to young readers.

Two pages of more detailed information about Dia de los Muertos is included in the back of the book, as well as a glossary to define the Spanish words. There are no pronunciation guides, which is unfortunate, although Google Translate or other online resources can fill that need.

The flow of the rhyming text, paired with engaging illustrations, would make this book an excellent read-aloud for Nov. 1 or 2, the dates that the holiday is celebrated. Teachers or librarians could compare this Mexican/Latin American holiday to Halloween to help children recognize the differences.

Additional resources
Latinxs in Kid Lit has a list of other books that explore the holiday’s beliefs and traditions: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/10/31/scholastic-highlights-books-that-celebrate-the-day-of-the-dead-el-dia-de-los-muertos/

The Program of Latino History and Culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has created a guide to the holiday that is appropriate for teachers or librarians. The history and beliefs are covered, and lesson ideas and activities are included. http://latino.si.edu/dayofthedead/DODManual.pdf

National Geographic has general information about Dia de los Muertos, including stunning illustrations, suggested questions to pose to students, and quick facts.
For older students: http://nationalgeographic.org/media/dia-de-los-muertos/
For younger students: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/celebrations/day-of-the-dead/

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? the story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? the story of Elizabeth Blackwell
by Tanya Lee Stone; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Christy Ottaviano Books, New York, 2013
ISBN 978-0-8050-9048-2
Picture book, biography
40 unnumbered pages : color illustrations ; 29 cm
Dewey: 610
Orbis Pictus Award, recommended book, 2014
Interest level: K-5
Reading level: 4.5
5 out of 5 stars

This is a wonderful picture book biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America. The story begins by informing the reader that there was a time when women were not allowed to be doctors. Many young readers will not be aware of this, and this somewhat shocking revelation makes a good hook as we then learn about Elizabeth Blackwell, from when she was a tough young girl up through her graduation from medical college.

The author includes some interesting details that helps readers get to know Blackwell. She was “a girl who tried sleeping on the hard floor with no covers, just to toughen herself up,” and “blood made her queasy.” It was when she was visiting a sick friend that she started to think about female doctors. The friend commented that “she would have much preferred being examined by a woman. She urged Elizabeth to consider becoming a doctor.”

Priceman’s gouache and india ink illustrations are colorful and flowing, and create a sense of movement that perfectly matches the text and the personality of Blackwell. Untitled

As Blackwell receives twenty-eight rejection letters from medical schools, Priceman has created an overwhelmed Blackwell surrounded by swirling letters and a series of “no’s.” Untitled

You turn the page, and there is one solid “Yes!” and the image of a figure carrying a suitcase halfway off the page. The juxtaposition of those two scenes brings the feelings of Blackwell to life.

The combination of an intriguing main character, engaging illustrations, and solid text that reads well would make this an excellent read-aloud opportunity. It would fit with children as young as kindergarten up through high school, if they were studying women’s rights.

The author has included a note at the back that fills in information around the main story. We learn of Blackwell’s infancy, as well as what happened after medical school. A source list is included.

The Library of Congress has a collection of Elizabeth Blackwell’s papers. You can view a handwritten letter from 1851 written by Blackwell concerning women’s rights.
Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awmss5/blackwell.html

The author’s website has a Teacher’s Guide and CCSS Connections publication available for download.
Teacher’s Guide: http://tanyastone.com/assets/files/Blackwell%20Reader%20Guide.pdf
CCSS Connections: http://tanyastone.com/assets/files/Blackwell%20Reader%20Guide.pdf

School Library Journal has teaching ideas for the book. This article includes an extensive list of online resources for more information about Elizabeth Blackwell.
The Classroom Bookshelf: http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2013/05/who-says-women-cant-be-doctors-the-story-of-elizabeth-blackwell/

Freedom in Congo Square

by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
little bee books, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4998-0103-3
Picture book, nonfiction, narrative, diversity, African American
Interest level: 1st grade and up
Reading level: 1.9
5 out of 5 stars

This book does everything right! Carole Boston Weatherford tells the story of Congo Square in New Orleans, and conveys a vital piece of African American history that highlights the culture and dreams that slavery was not able to snuff out.

The book starts with a foreword by Freddi Williams Evans, a historian and Congo Square expert. While you can jump right into the story, you really should not ignore this foreword. Evans tells us that Congo Square was the one place where both enslaved and free people of African heritage were able to gather on Sunday afternoons in New Orleans. They worked the other days of the week toiling in the fields and houses, but law set aside Sunday as work-free and for worship. In Congo Square, people danced and musicians played instruments that they knew from their homelands. It was the mix of these styles of music that led to the birth of jazz, and New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz.

Weatherford starts the story by contrasting the backbreaking work performed by slaves with the hope they held inside as they counted down the days to Congo Square — “Monday’s, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.” Weatherford conveys the horrors of slavery in a way that is appropriate for children, “The dreaded lash, too much to bear. Four more days to Congo Square.”

The illustrations by R. Gregory Christie are perfectly rendered to match the story as it develops. During Monday through Saturday, the colors are less vibrant and the figures of the slaves are stiff, shown either standing ramrod straight or bent stiffly at the waist. On Sunday, in Congo Square, the colors are vibrant and the figures flow and sway reflecting a freedom that is only possible in Congo Square.

Other smaller details add to the overall excellence of Freedom in Congo Square. I absolutely love the thick, quality paper that the publisher used. For me, it added to the joy of reading the book, and signifies the importance of the work. The author has included a glossary and Author’s Note in the back that adds further dimension to the story. The foreword teaches readers about the history of African Americans in New Orleans and sets the stage for Weatherford and Christie to bring in the emotions of the slaves in the main story.

Freedom in Congo Square is the perfect blend of celebrating moments of joy while not ignoring the work and oppression forced upon the African American slaves. While targeted to readers age 5 through 9, this book can be shared with students of all ages who are studying the history of slavery in America. It would also be great if music teachers would use this book to introduce a study of jazz history.


Google Maps provides a view of present-day Congo Square. You can explore the virtual Congo Square by clicking on this link: https://goo.gl/maps/q91HXaMZxNK2 Congo Square sculpture

Congo Square sculpture
Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans. A plaque reads: “During the late 17th century and well into the 18th centuries. slaves gathered at Congo Square on Sundays and sang, danced, and drummed in authentic West Aftrican style. This rich legacy of African celebration is the foundation of New Orleans’ unique musical traditions, including Jazz.” Sculpture by Adewale S. Adenle, dedicated April, 2010. Photo October 9, 2014 (by Kent Kanouse).

Watch a recent celebration of heritage, music, dance, and freedom in Congo Square

The Congo Square Preservation Society hosts Sundays at Congo Square where “the sound of drums still echo and call for people to gather and connect to their ancestral memory, invent new creative expressions and organize African-American artists and communities.” (Congo Square Preservation Society website: http://www.congosquarepreservationsociety.org/who-we-are/4587517887)

Jazz Day: the making of a famous photograph

by Roxane Orgill; illustrated by Francis Vallejo
Candlewick Press, 2016.
ISBN 9780763669546.
Picture book, informational, poetry
2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award
Interest level: Grades 5 and up
Reading level: 4.7
5 out of 5 stars

In 1958, in front of a nondescript brownstone in Harlem, a man named Art Kane managed to gather 58 jazz musicians, and using a borrowed camera, captured one of the most iconic photos that would symbolize the “Golden Age of Jazz.” In the Author’s Note in the back of the book, Roxane Orgill tell us that “the poems in this collection were all inspired by Art Kane’s photograph Harlem 1958. The verses about the musicians are based on fact” (p. 43).

Orgill has recreated that day back in 1958 through a series of free verse poems. She begins by focusing on the photographer, Art Kane, and how he is alone on the street, wondering if anyone at all will show up. Subsequent poems focus on the arrival of some of the jazz artists, and some poems depict funny scenes involving the neighborhood children who hung around the location and were able to interact with the musicians. The free verse style of the poetry, combined with the slightly abstract style of illustrations, provides a reading experience that is both relaxed and slightly chaotic at the same time. It is laid back and free flowing, much like jazz music itself.image from inside Jazz Day

While reading this book, I was inspired to search for and listen to the jazz recordings of the artists in the book, and I am sure I am not the only one who will be inspired to do this. This book would make an excellent accompaniment to a program in jazz studies.

The topic and reading level of the poetry make this a picture book that is intended for an older reader. Kane’s Harlem 1958 photograph is included, as well as an Author’s Note, biographies of the featured musicians, source notes, and an extensive bibliography. The Author’s Note does a very good job being honest with the reader and highlighting areas where certain events or people have been fictionalized.

Overall, this is an exceptionally well done informational text that is very creative in the way that the author and illustrator have depicted the events of the day and the artists that participated.

Additional information
To watch and listen to a performance by Count Basie: http://viewpure.com/tP1nYX6SITI?start=0&end=0

eJazzLines has lots of Jazz resources, including books about Jazz that are organized by age group: http://www.ejazzlines.com/

Connections to Indianapolis — Indianapolis has a very rich jazz heritage and has been the home to some well-known jazz musicians. Learn more about jazz in Indianapolis.

A Great Day in Indy: In 2008, photographer Mark Sheldon recreated the famous Harlem 1958 featuring over 100 Indiana musicians. View Indy 2008

Discover the members of the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame

NPR provides a look at the history of the Indianapolis jazz scene: The Once-Thriving Jazz Scene Of … Indianapolis?

Pink is for Blobfish

by Jess Keating; with illustrations by David DeGrand
(The World of Weird Animals). Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. ISBN: 9780553512274.
Picture book, informational, explanatory genre
Interest level: K-3
Reading level: 4.5
5 out of 5 stars

There is a lot to love in this unique informational picture book by Jess Keating. Keating has a Masters of Science in Zoology, which she has combined with her love of writing to create a new series, The World of Weird Animals. Pink is for Blobfish is the first book in this series, and young readers will learn to think about the color pink in new ways, while learning about seventeen unique animals.

Each two-page spread features a new pink animal, with each animal being introduced by the recurring phrase, “Pink is for…”. A color photo showcasing the animal is accompanied by brief text highlighting basic animal facts. A cartoon drawing of the animal goes with an interesting tidbit that details what makes this animal unique, and finally a sidebar contains all the formal animal information such as species name, size, diet, habitat, and predators & threats. The book includes a map showing where each animal can be found in the world, a glossary, and resources for finding more animal information.
The book is colorful and visually interesting and will appeal to a wide range of young readers. The text is pretty complex, featuring words such as gelatinous, carrion, and eusocial, so upper elementary students in grades 4 and 5 will find challenges in reading comprehension. All readers, including adults, will learn about lesser known animals in a fun format. People should never view pink as a girly color after reading Pink is for Blobfish!

Pink is for Blobfish could be used as a mentor text to students writing animal reports. It includes basic factual information, throws in bizarre and unique information, and includes captivating photos and fun illustrations.

Video Trailer

You can find out more information about Jess Keating, and blobfish, by visiting her website at http://jesskeating.com/.