A memorable, lyrical reverse-chronological walk through the life of an American icon.
In free verse, Cline-Ransome narrates the life of Harriet Tubman, starting and ending with a train ride Tubman takes as an old woman. “But before wrinkles formed / and her eyes failed,” Tubman could walk tirelessly under a starlit sky. Cline-Ransome then describes the array of roles Tubman played throughout her life, including suffragist, abolitionist, Union spy, and conductor on the Underground Railroad. By framing the story around a literal train ride, the Ransomes juxtapose the privilege of traveling by rail against Harriet’s earlier modes of travel, when she repeatedly ran for her life. Racism still abounds, however, for she rides in a segregated train. While the text introduces readers to the details of Tubman’s life, Ransome’s use of watercolor—such a striking departure from his oil illustrations in many of his other picture books—reveals Tubman’s humanity, determination, drive, and hope. Ransome’s lavishly detailed and expansive double-page spreads situate young readers in each time and place as the text takes them further into the past.
A picture book more than worthy of sharing the shelf with Alan Schroeder and Jerry Pinkney’s Minty (1996) and Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson’s Moses (2006).
(Picture book/biography. 5-8)
The streets of the village of La Paz ring with song, both the musical kind and the symphony of life.
La Paz can be a noisy place where it’s hard to sleep or think, so the villagers fire the mayor. The new guy outlaws loud singing in the street, and things get better. Then he outlaws loud singing in the home…then all singing anywhere. Some villagers leave town. Some learn to hum. Enter a rooster and his family, and storyteller Deedy commences a folk-tale–like pattern. When the rooster sings in a mango tree, the mayor apprises him of the law. The tree smells so sweet, the rooster counters, that he must sing. The mayor chops down the tree. The rooster still sings because his family is so lovely. The mayor takes the rooster from his family, but still he sings. When the mayor threatens to make soup of the rooster in front of a crowd, the whole town takes up his song because “a song is louder than one noisy little rooster and stronger than one bully of a mayor.” Deedy's original tale about standing up to oppression couldn't be more timely. Yelchin's saturated, folksy, mixed-media paintings are the perfect partner, fleshing out the characterizations and offering visual humor.
This subtle, modern multicultural tale is a must-have: “Kee-kee-ree-KEE!” Indeed! (Picture book. 4-9)
In this wordless picture book, a light-skinned man moves from a peaceful protest march with his young child to imprisonment for his views and finally back to his home—with the help of letters from around the world.
The cartoons are masterful black-ink sketches with highlights of watercolor. Placards carried by the man and his cohorts bear bright red, filled-in circles, similar to the appearance of his daughter’s balloon. When the amorphous, peaceful band of protestors reaches an official-looking building, a frightening, well-organized phalanx of dark-blue soldiers in helmets appears, threatening violence. One soldier injures the man, who is then dragged into an ambulance. Not brutal enough? The soldier deliberately pops the daughter’s balloon. The man languishes in solitary confinement, sharing bread crumbs with a mouse and a bird. The cartoons illustrate the prisoner’s experiences of nostalgia, tedium, and hopelessness. When letters start arriving, the man’s joy is short-lived; the guard burns them. But as diverse groups and individuals send more and more letters, the dark smoke sends an SOS around the world. An image both beautiful and funny shows the man flying on wings of letters, as the guard below utters profanities. An author’s note (translated by Angela Keenlyside) informs readers that Goldstyn was inspired by the letter-writing campaigns of human rights organization Amnesty International. His book is an accessible and inspiring tribute.
“The pen is mightier than the sword” lives on.
(Picture book. 8-12)
When the chaos of life threatens to overtake your soul, a simple psalm can soothe you.
In this picture book, Wilder Award–winning author Grimes delivers a compact yet powerful message of hope and encouragement based on Psalm 121. Short poems energized with kindness, despair, hope, regret, and acceptance are delivered using a style she describes in the back of the book as “the golden shovel,” a form she also used in One Last Word (2017). Grimes defines this form as using a portion of an existing poem and arranging it in such a way that the end words of each line form a short sentence from the original poem. Using the words from the psalm, woven with carefully crafted words of her own, she tells the story of Jordan and Tanya, two elementary school children struggling with fitting in, trying to survive. Tanya, a black girl, stutters and compensates with meanness; while Jordan, a shy and quiet white boy, just wants to make a friend. Tanya feels the constant brunt of others' lack of compassion and directs that anger toward Jordan. Collier’s exquisite artwork combines soft, delicate brush strokes with lively photo collages. The effect is both hyper-realistic and gauzily surreal, a perfect complement to Grimes’ poems.
A sumptuous work filled with a deliciously wrapped center—perfect for classrooms, school, public, or church libraries, or home: wherever hearts go for mending.
(Picture book/poetry. 5-8)
A fictionalized account of a true story, published for the 25th anniversary of the Bosnian War, in which a young boy learns the healing power of music.
Drasko and his father sell flowers in a Sarajevo marketplace. Drasko marvels at the way his father has a kind word (and sometimes even a free flower) for everyone, regardless of race, religion, scowl, or smile. But seemingly overnight, the country is suddenly at war, and Drasko’s father must go play a part. Drasko takes over the flower stand, but now people are harried and rushed. One fateful morning, a whistling sound pierces the air. The bakery in the square is bombed, and 22 innocents are killed. The next day the square is silent, until a lone man in a tuxedo carries a chair and cello to the middle of the rubble and begins to play. He does this for 22 consecutive days, one for each of the lives that were lost. McCutcheon frames this story not around the unnamed cellist but around Drasko and the welling spirit of hope that one tiny, unexpected action can inspire. Critically, he does not identify Drasko’s ethnicity or religion, emphasizing that “Serb and Croat, Muslim and Christian” are all affected. Smudged, faded backdrops highlight key moments in the framed foregrounds, with deep, jewel-toned roses standing out all the more. An included CD allows readers to hear the story narrated by the author, with an accompanying musical performance by Vedran Smailovic, the story’s cellist.
Beauty will always find a way to rise from violence, but this is a reminder all readers need.
(historical note, further reading, author’s note, musical score)
(Picture book. 7-10)
Sparsely worded and rich in symbols, this oversize picture book speaks boldly, both visually and textually.
From the beginning, Nelson’s artistically vibrant images make clear associations between the elements of the American flag and both what they symbolize and the diverse cast of individuals who have contributed, in the past and present, to the freedoms we all enjoy as Americans. Naberhaus’ paired homophones, when considered with the illustrations, echo historical truths. For instance, “Sew together / Won nation,” with a young Betsy Ross sewing the first flag, appears across the gutter from “So together / One nation,” with a crowd of Americans displaying different ethnic, racial, gender, and age markers looking directly at readers. At every point, Naberhaus and Nelson claim America’s multiculturalism and pluralism as assets. Although some might consider this book patriotically didactic, its reliance on symbols leaves much for readers to fill in with their own knowledge and experience. And while this text would probably have been well-received at any time in the past, many adult and child readers will warmly welcome the way it embraces the idea of “e pluribus unum” at this particular historical moment. Notes from the author and illustrator and additional notes on the author’s website about the book provide extra material for classroom discussions.
Naberhaus and Nelson give new life to Old Glory for the youngest of readers
. (Picture book. 3-7)
Weaving in work from poet and Cuban freedom fighter José Martí, Otheguy presents a sensitive portrayal of the revolutionary.
Told in stanzas paired alongside Domínguez’s Spanish translation, Martí’s life story faces detailed, evocative full-page paintings, some painful (Martí witnessed the horrors of slavery), others celebratory. While the pale-skinned Cuban’s life contained many contradictions and political subtleties, the book focuses on Martí’s love of country and ties it in not only to his writing work, but to a more literal love of a homeland: his affinity for nature that continued even when he lived in the United States in exile. “In the Catskills, José splashed in the waterfalls, / hiked through the helecho, / the ferns that lined the paths, / and admired the thick bark of the oak trees,” Otheguy writes. If the text sometimes feels workmanlike, it’s only because the included bits of Martí’s poetry are so strong and searing. “I’ve seen the wounded eagle / Fly to the clear blue sky, / And I’ve seen the snake lie dying / From its own poison, alone in its lair.” While it doesn’t paint the most detailed picture of who Martí was as a person, it conveys enough of his fervent belief in Cuba’s independence and where those beliefs took him in life to make up for that.
In bringing an important life back into the conversation during divided political times, this book spotlights a steadfast hero and brilliant writer still worth admiring today.
(Picture book/biography. 7-12)
An eccentric, smart, and quirky bibliophile, Arturo Schomburg fueled his life with books.
This picture book of free verse poems, lavishly illustrated in oils, opens with stories from Schomburg’s childhood in Puerto Rico, where he constantly asked why the history of black people had been left out of all the history books. Answering him, framed, date-stamped panels, appearing primarily on the right sides of the double-page spreads throughout, capture the stories of important historical black figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Cuffee. The poem “Whitewash” will surprise some readers; Schomburg objected to the common practice of omitting from biographies the African heritage of prominent individuals such as naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon, French writer Alexandre Dumas, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Alongside these, Schomburg’s personal and professional life unfolds in unframed images. Schomburg worked as a mail clerk with Banker’s Trust; his book collecting and library building resulted from his life’s passion, not his vocation. All of the book’s details paint Schomburg as an admirable, flawed, likable, passionate man whose lasting legacy, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, opens its doors to all who would learn more about the people its founder knew had been left out of the written record.
A must-read for a deeper understanding of a well-connected genius who enriched the cultural road map for African-Americans and books about them. (Picture book/biography/poetry. 9-12)