Monthly Archives: February 2017

Free Friday: Soul Looks Back in Wonder


Souls Look Back in Wonder, illustrated by Tom Feelings, is a collection of poems by various Black poets (including Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Walter Dean Myers) that all have messages of uplifting Black children and encouraging them to embrace their blackness and their culture. I was drawn to the rich, colorful illustrations that convey meaning and emotion to every poem featured in this book; I was also drawn to the powerful words targeted at Black youth who already have very little representation in children’s literature, let alone children’s poetry.


Tom Feelings art style for this book of poems emphasizes the beauty of Black children. The colors he uses are warm and vibrant and inviting to the reader (the illustrations usually take up the whole page with no gutters), and he uses all shades of brown for his people. The illustrations give meaning to the poems, and can give the reader insight into different interpretations of the words. Feelings uses shape and color to create interesting compositions and illustrations for the poems and brings life to his Black characters, who are often seen doing activities that regular youth do.


The poems that the illustrator selected to include in this collection of poems speak to the experiences and feelings that young Black children might have, and it shows them that someone understands their identity and what they might be going through. Every poem, explicitly or not, includes messages about self-love of your skin color and your heritage. The poems have been crafted and put together so that the book reads as the hopes and dreams and loves of Black children and it makes poetry relatable and in one’s reach, especially to children who may not have been exposed to poetry as a form of literature before. The poems address advanced struggles of identity and the future that speak to teenagers, but they can definitely be appreciated by younger elementary students as well. The poems are short but powerful, and an excellent introductory piece of poetry in any classroom for Black History Month.


Souls Look Back in Wonder is a great book to introduce poetry to young readers and the illustrations make the poems interesting and relatable. Especially poignant about this collection is its aim at Black youth to get them to love themselves and their blackness and to embrace where they come from. Diversity is needed in children’s literature, especially in poetry so that it is more accessible to all children, and this book does a nice job of this.

Posted by Ashanti Charles

Winner’s Wednesday: When Marian Sang

the cover page of When Marian Sang

the cover page of When Marian Sang


When I first saw the cover of When Marian Sang, I was immediately attracted to and intrigued by the faithful and engrossed expression on the singer’s face, her eyes closed and her hands folded in front of her chest, showing a solemn engagement in her singing and inviting the readers to turn the page and see her story with music. Rendered in Sepia-toned acrylic illustrations, When Marian Sang is a beautiful  collaboration between the author Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrator Brian Selznick about the incredible story of Marian Anderson, one of the greatest singers in America and an inspiring role model of courage in a pre-Civil Rights America when people of color were not allowed to pursue a professional career in concert music. Through concise and genuine language, the inclusion of the actual lyrics from the songs that influenced Marian and thousands of audience, and the intentionally designed illustration that serves as a visual metaphor of the opera stage, the book immerses readers in the powerful voice and extraordinary music talent of Marian Anderson and presents a time of heart-wrenching social injustice in American history in a manner that is accessible to young readers, many of whom perhaps did not experience the same hardships at first hand.

Endpaper shows the opera tstage. The story of Marian Anderson is about to start.

Endpaper shows the opera stage. The story of Marian Anderson is about to start.

Right from the endpaper, the stage is set up (metaphorically, illustratively, and narratively). The stage in the illustration is the Metropolitan Opera House, which was the stage of her debut and also the ending scene of the book. With the page-turn, the curtains rise and the readers, as with the audience in the illustration, now sees a street view on stage and the young Marian sing in a fully-lit window, drawing attention from people onstage and in the audience.img_20170221_210422

Continuing the visual metaphor of the opera, the title page is visually designed as a program, with the author and illustrator named “libretto” and “staging” respectively. The verso presents a brief, poetic description of Marian’s voice as well as her life experience. The show starts now…

The Cover Page

The Title Page

One of the sparks of this book is its inclusion of the actual verses that Marian sang that had profound meaning to or symbolism of particular time periods of her life (sometimes also as a poignant commentary on the social reality that people of color faced).  For example, on the following page, when the text is talking about how Marian travels to sing for racially separated audience and the illustration shows the troubling and exasperating image of a “colored waiting room”, the verses that Marian sings are about the oppression of Israeli in Egypt, mirroring the oppressive reality that African American people were living at that time.



When Marian embarks on a journey to Europe to learn singing, she feels homesick and starts singing on the ship; here, the full-spread page with sorrowful lyrics of a wandering child in the background of the boundless sea is filled with the deep connection and affection that Marian feels for her home and people, enabling readers to share her grief and uncertainty about the future.

Marian is sad to leave her mother and her country.

Marian is sad to leave her mother and her country.

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child I long ways from home. A long ways from home. Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone A long ways from home. A long ways from home."

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
I long ways from home. A long ways from home.
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
A long ways from home. A long ways from home.”


The use of full-bleed spreads is dazzling, evocative, and integral part of the book. For example, the culminating scene when seventy-thousand people congregate in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Marian sing is depicted in a full-bleed spread (in a horizontal, landscape scale) to show the sheer number of people, invoking a sense of awesomeness and anticipation. The last scene, Marian’s debut at Metropolitan Opera, is also depicted in a two-page spread where Marian’s vibrant-colored clothes are in stark contrast to the sepia tone in the rest of the picture, highlighting the real excellence of her musical talent as well as the tremendous courage and perseverance she embodied.


People in front of the Lincoln Memorial, waiting to hear Marian sing

people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, waiting to hear Marian sing

the "final" debut

the “final” debut


Written with simple yet powerful words and illustrated in a way that faithfully captures Marian’s talent, dedication to music, and inspiration as an activist of social justice (in her own way), When Marian Sang is a brilliant, creative work that will fascinate readers of elementary grades. If I were to use this book in my class, in addition to a read-aloud and open discussion about the illustration, character traits, and themes of the book, I would also show my students actual video/audio clips of Marian’s performance to let them experience the magic and power of her voice in a different way, but just as authentic and influential as the picture book.



Posted by Shiyu Wang

Marvelous New Picture Books Monday: The Secret Project


Written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Published on February 7th, 2017, The Secret Project is a brand new, page-turning picture book about the development of the atomic bomb during World War II in Los Alamos. An all-boys school in a remote area is cleared out and filled in with scientists and workers who have been given a very secret task. The task is so secret they cannot call it by its real name; instead, they call it the Gadget. They work for a long time on the Gadget, and then go out into the middle of nowhere to test the Gadget. The book ends with a countdown and an explosion, then darkness.

This book has a lot of mystery and suspense to it. No real historical terms are used (i.e. The Manhattan Project, atomic bomb, World War II, etc.), which makes the story all the more mysterious. Winter has a creative use of text design for the countdown, where the numbers descend down the page. Teachers can read this slowly and in different tones of voice to create more suspense. The black page at the end really leaves the audience silent and pondering the effect of the explosion.

Anyone can enjoy this book. If younger children do not know the historical context of the novel, they could enjoy it as a fun mystery. Students and teachers who understand the surrounding context can follow along and look deeper into what happened during this important part of World War II.

You can make a lot of cross-curricular connections with this book because it brings up a lot of different topics. The artist Georgia O’Keefe is painting on a canvas in the desert on a page, so you could bring in an art history lesson about the arts during World War II and the 1940s. The book talks about atoms and fission, which allows for science application about nuclear weapons or nuclear physics concepts. And of course, you could bring in history lessons about World War II, the Manhattan Project, and world powers. Overall, this book eloquently addresses topics that might be tricky to bring up in the classroom and puts it in words and pictures that are easy for everyone to imagine and understand.

Posted by: Jenna Adamczak

Free Friday: When the Chickens went on Strike


When the Chickens went on Strike, written by Erica Silverman, and illustrated by Matthew Trueman


When I saw the cover of this book, and saw that this was adapted from a story by Sholom Aleichem, I grabbed it immediately.  That’s the guy who wrote Fiddler on the Roof! I thought, excited to read another story situated in between Russian and Jewish culture.

The story follows one boy as he learns of the chickens refusing to take part in a traditional Rosh Hashana tradition.  The Jewish tradition of Kapores involves holding live chickens above people’s heads and saying prayers, which is part of the Rosh Hashana festivities celebrating the New Year.  The boy begins as an unruly, immature character who just yearns to make his family proud of him, a typical example of a boy ready to become a man.  He finds out that the chickens are refusing to take part in this festivity, and they go on strike.  The boy is distraught; he was counting on Kapores as a way to prove to his father that he was worthy of pride.  He then races back to tell his family of this, but they are not listening.  Eventually, when the villagers realize their chickens and fowl aren’t there, they begin asking questions and frantically searching their town.  The boy soon shows the people where the chickens are, and then takes them there as they begin negotiating the chicken’s terms in their rituals.  Eventually, the chickens resort to running away, but not after the boy intercedes on their behalf.  He then comments on the fact that life continued on, and that customs come and go.


While the story is rather straight forward, I really love the way the story is written.  The author’s words really reflect the insecurities of a preteen boy, and the topics of customs, ritual, and faith also are interwoven throughout the story.  One of my favorite lines reads, “Reb Fishel wagged a finger at them. ‘This is a revolution.  You chickens want to turn the whole world upside down!’

‘We just want our rights!’ A chicken cried out”


This, to me, seems like a dialogue all too familiar.  It shows the lack of understanding that the powerful party has towards a minority, towards those who have often been misunderstood or underrepresented.

The illustrations in this book are also engaging and appropriate for children of all ages, which lends to this universal nature of the story that it is telling.  The colors of the Russian countryside also are a major focus in the illustrations, and the way the pages are framed also lends well to this almost mythicized story.

Overall, I think this is a special book that tells a story situated in a specific historical and cultural context, but that has universal appeal, with the themes of growing up, listening and standing up for others, and discovering the true value and meaning of your customs.


Post by Hannah Baughn

Traditional Thursday: The Little Engine That Could


little_engine_large_formatThe Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, with illustrations by Loren Long, is a famous children’s book many people remember from their own childhood. The book was written in 1930, but was recently published with brand new beautiful illustrations in 2005. The edition I grew up with, and more commonly owned, is the one published in 1979 with much simpler and less colorful illustrations. The book is about a train who carries toys and food to little children on the other side of the mountain. Before the train reaches the children, her engine stops working and she comes to a stop. Several engines pass by including a shiny new engine, a big strong engine, a freight engine, an old engine, but they won’t help her. The toys, a clown, elephant, monkey and more, ask the other trains if they will help her up the mountain so the little boys and girls can get their toys, but all the engines say no, until a small little blue engine comes along and decides to help. Although she was small, she kept repeating, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”, and was able to pull the train with the toys up the mountain. Growing up, I remember my siblings and I repeating “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”, inspired by the little blue engine. This book is simple, and entertaining and great for young children. Children can flip through the pages and label the objects, foods and toys, and see all the different trains, and the route up the mountain.
little-engine-2 little-engine-1

What a Jam Jamboree!



Jamberry, illustrated and written by Bruce Degen, has always been one of my favorites, with its rich colors and wild adventures.  A boy and a bear go in canoes, under bridges, on trains, in a hot air balloon, to the circus, and beyond to find the best berries to make jam.  They see blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and hayberries, among many others in the rhyming world of Berryland.  Berries spill from one page to another, ending in a cascade of berries on the final page. The story will capture the attention of any young child, as it did mine, with the bright colorful illustrations and the fun, “razzmatazz”-ical language.  Degen has created a fantastic world within his pages, in which even the letters come alive with berries and leaves.  Bring a hat and a canoe to catch all the berries you’ll find in Jamberry!  

Post by Campbell Slatton

Marvelous New Picture Books: The Mouse and the Moon


I was first drawn to The Mouse and the Moon by Gabriel Alborozo (published in 2016) because of its unique illustrations. Everything in the full, two-page illustrations is in black and white, except for the yellow mouse. After reading the book, I fell in love with it even more because of its cute and humorous story about finding friendship in the most unexpected of places.fullsizerender

This book is about a mouse who lives alone in the woods, and his only friend was the moon. Every night when the moon came out, the mouse would talk to it, but the moon would never respond. The mouse thought the moon did not respond because it was too far away, so he went on a journey through the woods to find the moon. Much to the mouse’s dismay, the moon never got any closer and the mouse was scared because he was far away from home. At one point, the mouse could not even see the moon anymore, but he heard a quiet voice whisper “hello.” After some peering around, the mouse saw the moon in a small pool of water!fullsizerender-2

Little did the mouse know was that this was only the moon’s reflection and below the water was a fish. Little did the fish know, it was not his friend, the moon, speaking back to him either; above the water was a mouse. The mouse and the fish talked all night. However, as morning approached, the moon started to disappear, so the mouse and the fish both tried to get as close to it as possible before it left. When the moon was completely gone, the friends saw each other for the first time and were happy that they both finally found a friend.fullsizerender-3

Despite the rest of the pages’ black and white images, the final pages when the mouse and fish finally see each other were in color. Not only do the colored pages portray the fact that it was now morning, but they also represent the mouse and fish’s newfound happiness that they found a friend at last.


Posted by Halie Petrich

Free Friday: Hannah Is My Name


One of the illustrations in Hannah Is My Name, which shows the influence of traditional Asian art styles


I still remember opening the mailbox and getting a big, flat package, just for me. I was in second grade, and my favorite aunt had just sent me my birthday present! I was so excited, that I ripped open the present right there in the driveway. It was a book: Hannah Is My Name by Belle Yang.  It was also autographed and addressed directly to me!!! “That’s cool…” I thought, “Hannah is my name too!”


This is my very own copy of the book, complete with Belle Yang’s own note and drawing, especially for me!!!

This picture book was published in 2004 (my second grade year) and covers the experience of a young girl and her family as they leave their native Taiwan to come to the United States for the hope of a better life. It is the semi-autobiographical account of the author and illustrator, who came to the United States when she was seven years old in 1967.  The illustrations are in a more traditional Chinese style, as Yang studied at the Beijing Institute of Traditional Chinese Painting.  It is a very interesting way to depict some of the famous American skylines, almost as if we are all Hannah, looking at America through the lens of Chinese tradition.

This book chronicles many of the experiences of young immigrant children, from learning a new language, recognizing the stress her parents are under, and worrying about whether or not they will be allowed to stay in the United States.  The story ends with her family receiving “blue cards”, immigration cards allowing them to stay in the United States, different from the green colored cards that they were expecting.


Yang’s illustration, depicting Hannah and the other students watching their teacher’s reaction to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.

This book touches on some rather intense topics for children, including risks of immigration, deportation, race, and even discusses the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As being told through the eyes of a young girl, these topics are made to be more accessible to children.  She tells the story of learning about MLK’s death through her teacher, who said “He wanted all people to be treated fairly…whatever the color of their skin”, after which Hannah remarks, “Mr. King must have been fighting for my family to be treated kindly too.  Papa and Mama say this is why we came to America”.  In today’s political climate, it is important to try to find some works that celebrate diversity and represent minority children and families, which this book seems to accomplish really well.

That being said…

Some older readers claim that this book tends to perpetuate Asian American stereotypes, and only depicts immigrants who are struggling to survive in this new country.  However, this work, as semi-autobiographical, seems to be less stereotypical, and more instructional, giving a glimpse into the life of a Taiwanese girl who moved to the United States in the 1960s.  It, for me, was a very influential window into this other perspective, a look into the lives of someone (with my name!!) to live a very different life than my own.  However, just like Hannah’s final words in the book, this showed me that we are more alike than different.  “Hannah is my name.  And America is our home”.


The final page spread in the book. 

Hug Machine



With a cover like that, I couldn’t help but pick up Scott Campbell’s adorable book Hug Machine.  It is the perfect picture book just in time for Valentine’s Day.  Written and illustrated by Campbell, Hug Machine is about a little boy who has identified himself as the Hug Machine.  He will hug everything and anything.  In fact, the inside of the cover is actually a checklist of everything he wants to hug, including a baby, a snake, a traffic cone, and a whale.  By the end of the book, all of these items are marked off on the same checklist on the inside of the back cover.  new-doc-2017-02-03-12-31-42_1-copy

As you can see, people have mixed reactions to the Hug Machine.  Sometimes they love the hug and other times, it is surprising at best.  In the majority of the book, you are following the Hug Machine around as he zigs and zags to ensure he hugs everything.  The magic of this book comes in the hilarity of its illustrations.  The seriousness of the Hug Machine with the surprise or bewilderment of the hug-ee is a mixture that can’t be outdone.  The following illustration is an answer to the question of what fuels the Hug Machine.  Obviously, it’s pizza.  new-doc-2017-02-03-12-32-17_1new-doc-2017-02-03-12-33-06_1

By the end of the book, the Hug Machine has hugged himself out.  He’s exhausted and doesn’t think he can hug anything else.  But when he gets home, his mother wraps him in her arms, and he stays “open for business.”  I would recommend Hug Machine for younger ages, but can honestly say that as an adult, I fell in love with the Hug Machine too.

Post by Campbell Slatton


Marvelous New Picture Books: River Rose and the Magical Lullaby


River Rose and the Magical Lullaby

Author: Kelly Clarkson

Illustrated by: Laura Hughes

I am a big Kelly Clarkson fan, and when I found out that the grammy winner had written a picture book, I knew that I had to read it. River Rose and the Magical Lullaby is a whimsical story of friendship and adventure authored by Clarkson and illustrated by Laura Hughes. One of my favorite elements of this book is its accompanied lullaby, which Clarkson wrote and readers can listen to and sing along with.


The story follows young protagonist River Rose, named for and inspired by Clarkson’s own daughter, as she goes on a fanciful adventure through the zoo at night. River Rose loves singing, dancing, skipping, hopping and playing pretend. She is accompanied by her pet dog and best friend, Joplin (a nod to singer Janis Joplin) on her journey. River Rose and Joplin make many friends at the zoo including polar bears, penguins and even a hippopotamus! With each animal, they engage in imaginative and eccentric play, slip-sliding, riding and splashing to their heart’s delight. As the night winds down, River Rose and Joplin conclude that though they enjoyed their adventure, home is their favorite place to be.


I found the book’s illustrations fitting and delightful. The bright colors and playful sketches of River Rose and her animal friends perfectly echo the story’s whimsical and playful themes. My personal favorite illustration depicts River Rose’s zoo party. Each animal is shown in some form of musical expression, singing, dancing and playing instruments with content grins.



The book’s content is amusing, silly and lively. Each line contains whimsical rhymes that lend a sing-song quality to the story, perfect for a book with a lullaby accompaniment.


River Rose and the Magical Lullaby is an engaging tale that would incite reverie and whimsy in all readers, whether they be 4 or 40. I would recommend this book to all young readers, especially those with big imaginations and carefree attitudes.

Posted by Natalie Gustin