Sunday, February 28, 2010


Today, the spirit of African American history...and an African American future.

WHO WILL I BE, LORD? by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Sean Qualls (Random House)
Great-Grandpap was a mailman. "He knew everybody in town and everybody knew him." He married Great-Grandma, a white woman who "mama'd five children and made the best cakes in the county. She wore pants when other ladies mostly only wore dresses...Mama says Great-Grandma knew more about love than most folks." Grandma is a teacher ("proud of her education and likes passing the plate around so everyone can have some"). Uncle is a pool shark ("if you're gonna be a ditchdigger, learn to dig the best ditches on earth," he advises), and cousin is a jazz man. Grandpa is a preacher, Papa is a car man, and Mama is a Mama, taking care of everybody. Looking over her family tree, the little girl can't help but wonder, "Lord, what will I be?" For those concerned about the title for inclusion in secular schools (as I was), in fact, the use of "Lord" is a matter of voice and characterization, true to the context of the little girl who narrates (and a great opportunity for teachers to talk about voice and characterization with young authors). Above all, this book values the power of stories passed down through a family, and recognizes how those connections are catalysts for aspiration and empowerment ("My mama is a mama. And what will I be, Lord? Who will I be? I guess like Mama says, it's up to me"), and between the lines pulses the sense that acceptance from that circle awaits, no matter what choice is made. Quall's line is daring and joyous, taking on the best qualities of a "retro" feel with muted, matte paintings overlapping unfilled pencil lines and dancing shapes (check out his wonderful blog for a sample of his inimitable style). This lovely, almost philosophical offering is a springboard into wonderings and dreamings about the future, as well as loving remembrances of people in the past. (6 and up)

Also of interest:
Black history is also American history, every month of the year. Keep on reading, sharing, recognizing and inspiring with these very personal accounts.

TESTING THE ICE: A TRUE STORY ABOUT JACKIE ROBINSON by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Scholastic) We know Jackie Robinson as the great ambassador who was the first African American to play in the Major Leagues seven years before the desegregation of schools, but Sharon Robinson knew him as "Dad." Join the family at the Robinson's house on the lake, a lake that Jackie Robinson did not want to set foot in. But when his daughter and her friends want to go ice skating, Jackie Robinson puts aside his own fears to assure safety for the ones he loves. "All I could think was: My dad is the bravest man alive...In fact, Dad showed the same courage on the ice that day as he did when he broke the color barrier in baseball. No one really knew what would happen." This effective metaphor, drawn with suspense and the great humanity of Robinson's own rare moment of vulnerability, makes for a powerful story. The incredible perspectives of the realistic paintings make the people seem to breathe on the page and draw the reader into every scene. Paired with a thrilling read-aloud, it is perhaps easier to share with a young audience than the illustrator's stunning tribute to the Negro Leagues, WE ARE THE SHIP, or at least serves as a perfect preface to it. What a gift Robinson has given with this memory...and what a tribute. (6 and up)

CHILD OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT by Paula Young Shelton, illustrated by Raul Colon (Schwartz & Wade)

But Uncle Martin wasn't really my uncle -- not by blood, anyway.
We were close because our fathers worked together.
Close because our mothers worried together.
Close because we all struggled together.
Close because we were brought together for a common goal, a common good.
We were one family -- the family of the American civil rights movement.

Inspired by the real-life memories of the daughter of civil rights activists Andrew Young and Jean Childs Young, this is the chance to sit under the table from a child's eye view and listen to grown-ups discuss the decision to march from Selma to Montgomery. The narrator describes each debating voice like an instrument, and then, "Uncle Martin loved the music of his friends and knew that each instrument needed to be heard. But he also knew in the end they must come together like a symphony, as one." The commitment of the family, moving from the north to south during Jim Crow, and details like being carried as a child after becoming to tired to walk or throwing a tantrum because of being hungry but not allowed to sit and eat, make a historical experience immediate and relatable to the young listener. What's more, the book ends with the passing of a "baton," and the march goes on for a new generation of children to join. The pointilistic art style done with colored pencil is mellow and rich, warm and well-matched to the text. Ultimately, it is an effective pairing that welcomes any young reader into the right side of history. (6 and up) Along these thematic lines, also check out THE BEATITUDES: FROM SLAVERY TO CIVIL RIGHTS by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ladwig (Eerdmans), an elegant rendering in both words and pictures of the famous Sermon on the Mount in the spirit of African American faith, taking the reader across a broad timeline: from the ships across the Middle Passage, under the starry night sky with Harriet Tubman in the lead, at the Lincoln Memorial as Marian Anderson's voice soared, at Emmett Till's funeral, alongside Ruby Bridges as she bravely marches into school, and with Barack Obama as he takes his oath. A thoughtful picture book for older children, it is very nice in conjunction with Jacqueline Woodson's stunning personal history, SHOW WAY, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam) for depicting a continuum of strength. (9 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at

Friday, February 26, 2010


Hmm, most women over sixty that I know these days color their hair, but these storybook seniors are so fabulous they may be setting some new trends. Today, it's a grandma-a-go-go (with a grandpa or two for good measure)!

MY ABUELITA by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt)
Then my abuelita booms out words, loud and clear. She always says the words should be as round as dimes and as wild as blossoms blooming.

A little boy helps his grandmother get ready for work. But what job requires a scarf like a cloud that flows down to the ground, practice at singing like a frog, a skeleton and plumed snake packed into the back seat of a car, and a crown of stars? A storyteller, of course! The grandson's pride and delight is palpable as he joins his charismatic elder from preparation to performance. Figurative language permeates the text: Abuelita is like a calabeza, a pumpkin, with hair the color of salt and a face crinkled like a dried chile. After her morning shower, she looks like a great big bee, wrapped in her black and yellow towel, and at breakfast, fried eggs look like stars. What a boon for teaching simile and metaphor in context! Best of all is the artwork, with an award-winning illustrator trying a new technique of photographing her hand-crafted poppets in scenes brimming with miniatures, but maintaining her signature sunburned palette, as vibrant as streamers hanging from a pinata. Be sure to look for the family cat, "Frida Kahlo," padding through the pages adorned with a posy atop her feline face like the painting of her namesake, and the double-page spread of the convertible car stuffed with props is nothing short of a wonder. Check out this charming video (and share with young readers) to see how Madame Morales created her work of art. This book is a tribute to the unique, contagious energy of grandmothers-- and storytellers-- everywhere. (5 and up)

P.S. Fun fact for fans of Yuyi Morales (who isn't?): her sister, Magaly Morales, has also started illustrating picture books...kind of like what Venus and Serena Williams did to raise the bar for tennis, this duo will do for picture books! "Love!"

PEENY BUTTER FUDGE by Toni and Slade Morrison, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Simon & Schuster) Mom has left a schedule on the refrigerator while she steps away for a few hours, but Nana has her own agenda that the children are pleased as punch to follow, full of storytime and sack races, dancing, puzzles and a finale of putting together a delicious dessert: peeny butter fudge. Lots of approximate rhymes are for the effect of a rambunctious flow more than any tight meter; this is a book about breaking the rules in order to have some fun. The illustrations really "make" this title; an electric palette and jaunty angles give this visit a special energy. Though Grandma's hair is white, the rejuvenation she feels amidst her grandchildren is palpable, and the details elicit sensory response; can't you just hear Nana's roaring laugh as the children surround her, pretending to be doctors and trying to fix her, or can't you feel the breeze from the window as the family crowds and cuddles together for a nap on mussed blankets? When Mama returns from errands and sees the kitchen in disarray, her anger is kept at bay with by a poignant wordless flashback to cooking with her mother in her own childhood, and it's hard not to catch your heart in your throat. This book has a notable and genuine intimacy, sharing something very true and touching about love in a family that tugs at the heart. No saccharine here, though, only real, sweet sugar both in this story and in the recipe included for a batch of "peeny butter fudge" (though you'll have to supply your own Nana). (5 and up)

Also of interest:
More quality time with grandparents.
OUR GRANDPARENTS: A GLOBAL ALBUM by Maya Ajmera, Sheila Kinkade and Cynthia Pon (Charlesbridge) Babu or Bibi? Opa or Oma? Dada or Dadi? Zayde or Bubbe? Whatever you call them, grandparents are people who love and encourage, listen and play, teach, share, celebrate, and take care of us; we take care of them in return. These attributes shine in the smiles of the people in outstanding, emotive photographs from all corners of the globe, simple text aligned with images both personal and universal that speak a thousand words. With a foreword by Archibishop Desmond Tutu, this is one of the books from the very lovely collection of books from the Global Fund for Children collection. (3 and up)

NANA CRACKS THE CASE! by Kathleen Lane, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Chronicle)
You've got to love a book where one of the first lines is "It did seem that Nana had all of the qualifications necessary to be a detective." Indeed, this grandma has a formidable wig collection, a sneaky streak, and leaves a book on her kitchen table, The Joy of Napping, to throw the people who expect her to be good and proper (ech!) off the trail of her true nature. But to Nana's mischievous grandchildren, her vocation is no mystery, and they join her as she tries to discover who stole the precious chocolate Yumdums and compensate for Nana's unfortunate Mr. Magoo-like streak. This early grade novella is a teeny bit tricky to follow in spots mostly due to the zany plot and the POV in which an invisible narrator directly addresses the reader, but has definitely cracked the case when it comes to voice and wry humor. This first time author is one to keep under investigation. (8 and up)

Speaking of fun novels for newer readers, be sure to check out LOOK OUT, JEREMY BEAN! by Alice Schertle, illustrated by David Slonim (Chronicle), oh my goodness, what a little read-aloud gem, the best since Ann Cameron's shamefully out-of print STORIES JULIAN TELLS. Good things come in a small package with these three short stories about a little fella finding his footing in a perplexing and competitive world: one St. Patrick's Day story (saints be praised, when was the last time we had some realistic fiction with that theme?), one story in which Julian is thrown by the term "dust bunnies" in true Ramona Quimby style, and one really beautiful story, the first one, about a grandfather's patient guidance in helping Jeremy discover what unique collection he can bring to school for a class assignment. The presence and importance of the grandparent is very natural in the life of this character, and the writing portrays the relationship in a light of loving friendship that some lucky children will recognize. This author already wrote one of my favorite poetry books of the year, and continues to show her tremendous versatility and heart. (7 and up)

TOAD COTTAGES & SHOOTING STARS: GRANDMA'S BAG OF TRICKS by Sharon Lovejoy (Workman) How about a little grandparent-y nonfiction? This book boasts "130 Wonder-Filled Grandchild-Friendly Activities!" Exclamation point! This author uses her extensive expertise in the garden (demonstrated in SUNFLOWER HOUSES and ROOTS, SHOOTS, BUCKETS & BOOTS) to help children and their relationships with grandparents grow as high as a runner bean. Fairy boxes, firefly lanterns and campfire stories are old-school fun, and even if some ideas are perennial, this book infuses them with a contagious energy and a love of nature, plus plenty of pretty spot illustrations and photographs that conspire to inspire both young and old grown-ups to take a child firmly in hand and walk down the garden path. (Parenting)

Please check out my vintage post for more outstanding reads on this theme, including Reeve Lindbergh's MY LITTLE GRANDMOTHER SOMETIMES FORGETS and MY HIPPIE GRANDMOTHER, both representing common experiences kids might have with the seniors in their lives, and absolutely do not miss sharing Ed Young's I, DOKO (Philomel, 5 and up), a haunting and provocative picture book parable set in Japan told from the point of view of a basket, in which a few choice words from a little boy remind a family to care for the elderly in the manner they would wish for themselves. And! Since the last giveaway went so well, let's try another one: share your favorite reading memory about someone over sixty-five or name another favorite grandparent character from children's literature in the comments section below by the end of the day on March 1, 2010 and be entered a random drawing for a copy of Sharon Lovejoy's TOAD COTTAGES AND SHOOTING STARS! Good luck and thanks for sharing!

On a personal note: This post is dedicated to my friend in library school, Kym Gotches, one of the most cheerful people I know. Even though she's a spring chicken herself, she always reminds us of the importance of intergenerational programming in libraries, and that age is something to celebrate. Thanks for the inspiration!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Happy Valentine's Day! Nobody likes squishing a chocolate in the box and finding the wrong flavor, so you'd better check out the PlanetEsme list of unlovable love stories to make sure your storytime stays sweet for elementary school children. Also, check out "Ten Ways to Use Books to Say I Love You on Valentine's Day," and these pitch-perfect new picture books for when love is in the air...and in the library.

Talullah really wants a pink fluffy rabbit toy, but is gracious enough to accept the knitted armadillo made by her loving grandmother. The new friend strives to impress, to no avail:
Milo Armadillo was athletic.
"That's good jumping," said Talullah, "but rabbits jump higher."
Milo Armadillo played funky tunes.
"Very good," said Tallulah airily, "but rabbits only play classical music."
After a few rounds of best efforts falling short, Milo Armadillo hits the road, leaving Talullah to realize that she has, in fact, "lost something very special." Wah-lah, here we have hit the page where the experienced storytime teller will sadly say "the end" and elicit the pained squeals of the audience, but fear not...Talullah will follow the unraveled pink thread to find her friend yet again and redeem herself, in true happily-ever-after spirit. A very fetching artistic style combines a colorful, broad, sketchy line with textile collage; it's fun to see Grandma's actual yarn visually pop off of the page, and the actual pink knitted pattern makes Milo seem extra squeezable.

On Tallulah's Valentine's playlist, I would safely guess that Milo would put Crosby Stills Nash and Young's "Love the One You're With," or maybe Cinderella's "Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone." The moment when Talullah weeps "I don't WANT a pink fluffy rabbit...I want Milo Armadillo!" the reader can barely resist a moment of schadenfreude by shouting "too late, sister!" In fact, besides being an attractive and darling book, this is a valuable little parable with a dash of emotional bravery that makes a point without preaching: the way we treat others affects others (surprise!), a marvelous point to make as young children developmentally "decenter" and realize that the ones who love us have feelings, too, and these feelings are just as important as our own. Sure, perhaps some teens and adults could afford to be reminded of this as well; share with the person you know who pores over their "ideal mate" list a few too many times, and needs to take a more appreciative peek at the nearest armadillo. And start downloading the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." (5 and up)

Also of interest:
Love is in the air! Or at least, friendship.

A FRIEND LIKE YOU by Tanja Askani (Scholastic)
A wild animal expert shares pairings of rescued and domesticated cuties to demonstrate that friendship is always possible, even when it seems most unlikely. "Even if you think I am different...something just tells me we are going to get along." Ah, a white squirrel says hello to a tiny owl! Look at that baby bunny sticking his tongue out at a grouchy hedgehog! The LOLcats-like adorable-ness of the photographs may seem facile at first glance, but in fact, the reaction I got from children made me realize this book is more than a greeting card. These odd couples serve as a comforting affirmation that there is a friend out there for all of us, and culminate as a real world example of acceptance. If animals can manage to see past outward appearances, why can't we? Also setting this book apart are the endnotes, offering the names and types of all of the creatures great and small and their back stories, giving this title a nonfiction twist that makes it a special treat for young animal-lovers. (5 and up)

HENRY AND THE VALENTINE SURPRISE by Nancy Carlson (Viking) A big heart-shaped box on Mr. McCarthy's desk has the whole class a-buzz. Does the teacher have a girlfriend? Nosy, nosy! Is it the friendly playground monitor, or the generous lunch lady? How about the French teacher, oh-la-la! It turns out that Mr. McCarthy has a whole room full of people he loves, and manages to give both his class...and the reader...a big surprise. Exuberant illustrations feature a cast of animal characters both cheerful and chummy, and sharing this book is like giving one of those fun little cut-out classroom Valentines to anyone who listens. (5 and up)

Another Valentine's story with a surprise ending may be found in ANDY SHANE IS NOT IN LOVE by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, illustrated by Abby Carter (Candlewick), a recent addition to the cunning "Andy Shane" bookshelf that should appeal to fans of Suzy Kline's masterful "Horrible Harry." Bossy but likable Dolores can't help wondering why her best friend is spending so much time with the new girl in class, but the answer is that Andy's love affair is a classic one for a little boy, and Dolores has nothing to fear. Fall in love with this series that builds reading confidence and success for new readers! (6 and up)

And what do you love? Share a shortlist of any three faves in the comments below by February 21st, 2010 (what three books do you love? Or three foods? Three songs? Three dreams you hold dear? Three friends? Three teachers? Three websites? Or even three things you love to hate, if you happen to be a Valentine Scrooge?), and be entered in a drawing for three books that celebrate February: the lovely LIN YI'S LANTERN: A MOON FESTIVAL TALE by Brenda Williams and Benjamin Lacombe (Barefoot) for Asian New Year, Patrica Polacco's stirring JANUARY'S SPARROW (Philomel) for Black History Month, and the romantic wordless picture book romp SUNDAY LOVE by Alison Paul (Houghton Mifflin) in honor of Valentine's Day. I love reading great children's books, and sharing them with you, and I love when you share them with children in turn! XOXO!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at

Friday, February 12, 2010


SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang (Lee & Low)
To escape taunting at school and the workaday world of the laundry, young Anna May Wong hides out in the movie theater and hangs out on sets in Los Angeles. Wong's allure and diligence eventually earn her roles in moving pictures, but in the 1930's, are they the kind of parts that would allow her to hold her head high? With studios forbidding mixed-race love scenes and perpetuating stereotypes, it seems Wong can only go so far within her industry, but after a visit to China and some hard contemplation, she manages to go one step further. This well-paced picture book biography allows the reader to put Wong's choices into the context of her time, and attractive, realistic paintings underscore scenes from Wong's journey of discovery of her own identity as a Chinese-American. Besides being a very thoughtful introduction to a unique figure from Hollywood heritage, like any solid picture book biography, it can be used across grade levels, and is sure to incite discussion. What makes someone an American? What stands in the way of individual contribution? Some of the heartbreaking limitations put upon Wong (also put upon African-Americans and other people of color at that time and for many generations to follow) seem so unnecessary, intolerant and unduly cruel to us today, a source of embarrassment. It begs another question: what limitations do we put on people now that might seem silly tomorrow? (7 and up)

Also of interest:
Did you know, February 14th starts the Year of the Tiger? Gung hay fat tsai! Happy Chinese New Year (and Lunar New Year for many other Asian cultures)! This is an exciting, hopeful, vibrant time of year, so use books to join in the celebration! Click here for a list of over 25 classic Chinese New Year picture books (plus Chinese Zodiac Horoscopes for'll let me know if they are on the money, or the red envelope, as the case may be!), or use the bibliography in the article I did a few years back for the Teachers.Net Gazette, "Dim Sum and Then Some: Discovering China with Children's Books." But a New Year deserves some brand new books, so check out these recent picks with a Chinese flavor!:

THE SEEING STICK by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini (RP Kids) A reissue from 1977, gorgeous flowing watercolor illustrations in the spirit of Lisbeth Zwerger revive this reissue from 1977. The emperor offers a bag of jewels to the one who can help his blind, beautiful daughter Hwei Ming to see. Though word is sent for miles around Peking, but all who attempt the task fail. At last, an old man appears who shares Hwei Ming's condition, and teaches her view the world through her hands instead of her eyes. As the old man deftly weaves his story, we sense another master folklorist at work in the author, and themes of empathy and valuing the contribution of elders stand out. Some may find distracting that several pages have high-gloss accents; they are not textural enough to contribute to the story in the way that works for, say, Menena Cottin's BLACK BOOK OF COLORS (a nice book to read in combination with this one, incidentally), and the pictures are perfectly accomplished without any help, but they do make the pages look snazzy. Definitely worth a look-see. (6 and up)

TOFU QUILT by Ching Yeung Russell (Lee & Low)

Mr. Yim roars, / "Yeung Ying! / Why do you write about things / you know nothing of? / Why don't you write about/ what you know best? / You only deserve a forty. / It's the lowest grade I have ever/ given a student!" / Now / I know / I can only be / a saleslady, selling handbags, / after all.

Yeung Yim aspires to becoming a writer so accomplished that she can dine on the delicious custard, dan lai, whenever she pleases. But as a girl in 1960's Hong Kong, where educational opportunity is the exception rather than the rule, this is easier said than done. As the bright daughter of a poor tailor, she needs the support of her high-spirited mother, the practice afforded by family members who needs letters written and read, and most of all, a strong inner voice that finds a way to say "can do!" against all odds. An affecting author's note explains how the story told in this free verse is a very personal one, yet many creative children who have hurdles to clear will recognize themselves in these pages. This gracefully executed narrative taps into very real feelings of highs and lows of a child exploring a dream, and the little bits and pieces of everyday life that get quilted together to make us who we are. (8 and up)

HAPPY BELLY, HAPPY SMILE by Rachel Isadora (Harcourt) If you are a fan of Chinese food, be sure to join Louie for dinner at his Grandpa Sam's restaurant where readers get a tour of the kitchen before joining the festivities at the table. This book feels modern (gotta love the hipster delivery guy!) and has a very culturally inclusive spirit, with all races enjoying (and some less adventurous young palates refusing) the delicacies. Lanterns, dragons, take-out containers, fu-dogs, pots and pans and bits of real Chinese take-out menus worked into the collage create busy, cozy, colorful pages. Less detailed than Ted Lewin's tribute BIG JIMMY'S KUM KAU CHINESE TAKE-OUT, pair with Grace Lin's FORTUNE COOKIE FORTUNES for a primary level culinary foray. This book delivers. (4 and up)

Mmm. That last book put me in the mood for some mushroom fried rice with black bean garlic sauce from China Ling, the neighborhood take-out we refer to locally simply as "Nice Lady," because the woman at the counter is so kind. For many Americans, so many positive connections to cultures are made through food (whether the cuisine is perfectly authentic or not), as suggested by Jennifer 8. Lee, author of the fun grown-up book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Do you have a favorite Chinese restaurant? What dish do you like to order? Remember to wish your friends there "gung hay fat choy," good luck, health and prosperity...and I wish the same to you!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at


Related Posts with Thumbnails