A glimpse into the childhood whimsy of an important African-American congressman who has become famous for his words.
Long before John Lewis spoke to thousands during the civil rights movement, he honed his elocution skills by preaching to his 60 farmyard chickens. Knowing each one by name and habits, John protected his chickens from those who wanted to trade for them, rescued them when they fell into the well, and even once brought a nearly drowned chick back to life. Bringing a message of peace when the chickens bickered over food, John earned the nickname “Preacher” from his siblings. Illustrator Lewis’ signature watercolors paint a lively picture of John Lewis’ life growing up on a farm with a close and hardworking Christian family. The liveliness of the chickens as well as John’s concern and care for them shine in the light-dappled images. Given the seriousness of what Lewis faced on the march from Selma to Montgomery and the gravity of the issues he has dealt with throughout his career, this joy-inducing back story reveals an entertaining facet to the congressman’s life that young readers will appreciate.
After absorbing this must-read bit of personal history about John Lewis, young readers will never see this serious-faced congressman in quite the same way. (Picture book/biography. 5-8)
A tinkering African-American boy grows up to become the inventor of a very popular toy.
Lonnie Johnson always tinkered with something. As a kid, he built rockets and launched them in the park amid a crowd of friends. (He even made the rocket’s fuel, which once caught fire in the kitchen. Oops.) As an adult he worked for NASA and helped to power the spacecraft Galileo as it explored Jupiter. But nothing is as memorable in the minds of kids as his most famous invention (to date): the Super-Soaker. While testing out a new cooling method for refrigerators, Johnson accidentally sprayed his entire bathroom, and the idea was born. However, the high-powered water gun was not an instant success. Barton shows the tenacity and dedication (and, sometimes, plain good timing) needed to prove ideas. From the initial blast of water that splashes the word “WHOOSH” across the page (and many pages after) to the gatefold that transforms into the Larami toy executives’ (tellingly, mostly white) reactions—“WOW!”—Tate plays up the pressurized-water imagery to the hilt. In a thoughtful author’s note, Barton explains how Johnson challenges the stereotypical white, Einstein-like vision of a scientist.
A delightfully child-friendly and painfully necessary diversification of the science field.
(Picture book/biography. 4-8)
Bryan gives voices to the voiceless and presents the dreams of slaves who went to the grave without living them.
Using historical slave documents from the 1820s to the 1860s, Bryan brings to life 11 slaves who once belonged to Cado Fairchilds. When Fairchilds dies, his British-born wife decides to sell off the slaves and move back to England. Each of the 11 is given two double-page spreads to speak in. Accompanied by a free-verse first-person narrative, an illustration of each slave’s portrait appears in a varied palette of warm browns against a backdrop of documents related to historical slave sales. On the page adjacent to this illustration, the slave tells of the special skill he or she possesses that enriches the Fairchilds plantation. But on the following two pages, that same person explains what he or she dreams of doing with that talent. In contrast to the dull initial portrait, the second set of pages for each slave appears in full color and shows the speaker fully immersed in a caring community. The speakers’ talents include carpentry, music, sewing, cooking, and more. After including the price under each slave’s picture, Bryan offers a final tally for the completed sale, humans, livestock, and goods: $3,476.05.
Bryan makes real and palpable what chattel slavery meant and how it affected those who were enslaved; every child who studies American slavery would benefit from experiencing this historically grounded web of narratives.
(Picture book/poetry. 6-10)
This describes itself as “a counting book about building,” but it is so much more.
Vying for readers’ attention are the snappy rhymes that both count and instruct and the artwork, the details so vivid and the bricks so real that some of the stacks might just fall with the touch of a counting finger. With each turn of the page, what appear to be the members of a community—young and old, male and female, black and white and brown—add more bricks to create a masterpiece. Starting with “two, four, six. / Look at all the bricks! / Red and rough, hard and tough. / Two, four, six,” the piles of bricks get larger and larger as readers are treated to a view of how bricks are made. Some mix the mortar, some lay the bricks, and one white boy, having been given one brick by what could be his grandmother, can be seen on every page, carrying or offering his brick to workers. Past the halfway mark, Cyrus continues to use numbers in his rhymes, but readers will be unable to match them with bricks to count. No matter. This is an amazing feat of architecture and artistry that kids will pore over long after the last brick has been laid.
After sharing this, readers will have a new appreciation for bricks and will want to count all the ways they’re used in their own communities.
(Counting/picture book. 4-7)
By means of the alphabet, this bilingual book introduces the cloud forest habitat of the olinguito, a recently discovered mammalian species from the Ecuadorean Andes.
Via text that reads like poetry, readers join a zoologist in the cloud forest of the Ecuadorean Andes as he searches for the elusive olinguito. Using the alphabet as a device, Delacre presents the habitat of the olinguito. By focusing on the habitat rather than the animal the author reinforces the important concept of interconnectedness. In a nice departure from the usual bilingual book produced in the States, Spanish is presented first, and the alphabet includes the “ñ.” In another welcome departure, both languages have been allowed to breathe and sound fluent. The Spanish text, often alliterative, hews closer to the corresponding alphabet letter than the English does; if it doesn’t work for the English text the author has allowed it to be so. For example, “Pp: Pica, pica, picaflor del paraíso de las palmas de cera / A hummingbird sips nectar in this paradise of wax palms.” The beautifully detailed mixed-media artwork urges readers to look closely, and the author further encourages exploration by listing some of the things readers can go back and search for in the illustrations. The book is rounded out with bilingual backmatter.
Poetic and informative, a breath of fresh air in the too-often-contrived world of bilingual books.
(author notes, glossaries, author’s sources)
(Bilingual informational picture book. 5-9)
Double-page spreads of watercolor and collage use minimal words to describe how and why plants move.
“Plants don’t have feet or fins or wings, yet they can move in many ways. / Look closely and you’ll discover that plants can’t sit still.” These words dance across two pages loaded with images of several kinds of plants in different stages of their lives: seeds, vines, flowers, fruits. Colorful, exuberant illustrations work impressively with the text to prove that plants—in every stage—move in order to find and acquire uniform needs: “water, sunshine, and room to grow.” Throughout, readers are treated to a plethora of words more often used for fauna than flora, such as “wiggle” and “squirm.” Nighttime images show bean leaves “nodding” and tulip flowers “folding,” while moon flowers “wake with the stars.” One sentence is momentarily startling to adults with fixed definitions: “A seed is a plant built for travel.” However, the pages that follow easily support that statement, as different kinds of seeds depart from parent plants, travel, and grow into seedlings. The resources at the end of the book are as well-planned and carefully executed as the rest, offering information—including names and descriptions of every plant in the book—that expands the interest level of the text from preschool into early elementary.
Excellent collaboration produced a winner: graceful, informative, and entertaining.
(Informational picture book. 3-8)
A passion for education and freedom brings subversive ingenuity to life in 1847 St. Louis.
James’ mother scrubs his face clean for his first day of “Tallow Candle School” in the basement of Rev. John’s church. Though initially resistant, once James realizes that Rev. John teaches children to read, he goes eagerly. “We make our own light here,” the preacher tells him. Hopkinson reveals John Barry Meachum’s true history through the stories he tells the children of being born a slave (in 1789 in Virginia) and working in the saltpeter mines to purchase his own freedom and that of both parents, then walking hundreds of miles to liberate his wife. (The backmatter also reveals that Meachum bought and freed several other slaves.) When the police burst into the school to inform Rev. John that Missouri has passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to read, he stops teaching temporarily. With James’ help, he uses his carpentry skills to build a steamboat on the Mississippi—federal property—in which his students can learn freely. This fascinating story, illustrated in pen and ink with a color palette of browns and blacks with occasional pops of blue and red, draws readers into the historical era effectively and emphasizes what a privilege literacy was for African-Americans in the 19th century.
An unforgettable story that needs to be known.
(Picture book. 5-8)
This biography of 20th-century French artist Louise Bourgeois explores childhood experiences influencing her work.
Growing up beside a river that “wove like a wool thread through everything,” Louise observed a “web of stars” from the garden and slept to water’s “rhythmic rock and murmur.” She learned about form, color, and pattern as well as weaving and making dyes in the family business, which was restoring tapestries. “Useful as a spider” at the family’s work, Louise’s mother was also her best friend, teaching her to draw missing fragments of fabric like “thread in a spider’s web.” Studying math in Paris, Louise turned to art following her mother’s death, literally reworking the fabric of her life into original paintings, sculptures, drawings, cloth books, and tapestries reflecting the river, garden, weaving, spider, and mother motifs of her childhood. The evocative, hand-lettered text, peppered with quotations in red ink, provides an impressionistic portrait of the memories, colors, sounds, and images propelling Louise’s art. These motifs connect the imaginative ink, pencil, pastel, and watercolor illustrations, done in a palette of indigo, red, and gray. Bold, repetitive patterns of stylized flowers, woven crosshatches, spirals, giant spiders, and musical notes form the perfect background for the cloth lullaby Louise weaves for herself.
Splendid visual and verbal introduction to little-known artist Louise Bourgeois.
(author’s note; photos, sources)
(Picture book/biography. 6-9)
Following their Sibert Award–winning Parrots Over Puerto Rico, Roth and Trumbore turn to prairie dogs.
Each double-page spread includes a collage, a verse from a cumulative song based on “And the Green Grass Grew All Around,” and text detailing the evolving history and ecological significance of prairie dogs in North America. The clever layout makes this a book that can grow with its readers. For little ones, the large-print words of the song can be used along with the amazing artwork; older readers can move on to the highly informative, engaging narrative. The song teaches succinctly about the biodiversity of the prairie habitat before farmers and ranchers, the near-extinction of the entire habitat, and the return to biodiversity once the importance of the prairie dogs was recognized. In flowing, conversational language, the text for older readers includes such subjects as 19th-century, government-sanctioned prairie dog poisoning and how, in 1988, the prairie dog was finally recognized as a keystone species—one on which an entire ecosystem depends. The ongoing tale is uplifting, as individual people, organizations, and, finally, the government of Mexico have helped to bring back both the prairie dog and the prairie. Although the song’s scansion is rough at times—“owls bur-rowed” could have been “owls bur-rowed in”—adult readers can compensate for this, and the entire book is a worthy work of science-and-arts integration.
Steptoe chronicles the formative years and evolving style of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Brooklyn-born graffiti artist with a rising career in the 1980s fine arts world; coverage ceases before his untimely drug-related death at age 27.
Steptoe’s canvas is wood salvaged from the Brooklyn Museum and locales that Basquiat frequented. Spaces between the patched fragments contribute to the impression of a disjointed childhood. Steptoe shows that Basquiat was smart and driven early on, influenced by his Haitian father’s jazz records and his Puerto Rican mother’s style, encouragement, breakdown, and institutionalization when he was only 7. Prior to that, she drew with him, took him to see Picasso’s Guernica, and gave him Grey’s Anatomy following a serious car accident. Images of body parts imprint his increasingly complex political paintings, along with other recurring motifs explained in outstanding backmatter. Several sentences per spread speak with understated lyricism and poignancy, an occasional internal rhyme underscoring a point: “Jean-Michel is confused and filled with a terrible blues / when Matilde can no longer live at home.” Acknowledging his multifaceted sense of connection, Steptoe interprets Basquiat’s style instead of inserting particular works. Vibrant colors and personal symbols channel the “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL” paintings, incorporating meticulously attributed collage elements and capturing the artist’s energy and mystery.
Stellar bookmaking—a riveting portrait of a young artist.
(author’s note, bibliography, biography)
(Picture book/biography. 6-12)