Category Archives: Grades 3-6

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

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Andrea J. Loney and Keith Mallett’s New Voices Award Winner Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is one that, according to author Loney herself, “celebrate[s] the humanity of all children.” In this case, the child celebrated is James VanDerZee, an African-American boy born in 1886 to the former butler and maid of President Ulysses S. Grant. James himself, however, has a different future in mind: He wants to be an artist. James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart,” but his drawings of people never turn out quite right…so he ends up entering and winning a contest for his very own camera. Here, James does something quite mature: he neither gives up on a dream nor remains desperately grasping at an impossibility, instead adapting his plan as he sees and learns new things. Such a nuanced message is not often found in children’s books, and I wonder whether its poignancy stems from the fact that the story of James VanDerZee is a true one.

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James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart.”

This authenticity is evident in Mallett’s artistry as well. Illustrations in a book that centers on the life of an artist have high expectations to meet – but these delightful images deliver. The pictures of James with his camera are almost reverent, a beautiful glow from the device lighting James’ body and face so that he melts like butter against the soft, dark backdrop of the page.

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But the book is not all beauty and light. Loney does not shy away from reality, acknowledging in no uncertain terms the racism that James faces. I admire her willingness to speak of “segregation,” of the way that 19th century “customers would not want their portraits taken by a black man” – and also the way that Loney is able to illustrate resilience of black people in the face of these obstacles. James’ foray into the Harlem Renaissance comes alongside vivid depictions that are as jubilant as the “cultural celebration” itself.

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The book ends with a historical exploration: real photographs, as well as information about James that was not found in the book. It is always my hope that this type of story, told compellingly, will engage children not only in literacy and reading but in history and activism as well; the notes at the end of Take A Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! are ideal to pique a child’s interest in research after being drawn into James’ life through the narrative. 

-Addison Armstrong

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She Persisted

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She Persisted

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She Persisted spotlights 13 women who were game changers and trailblazers in different fields throughout American history. The book also discusses the adversity that girls face, even today. This book would be a valuable addition to any classroom as its characters are diverse in race, socioeconomic background, and influence, it depicts accurate historical experiences of women, and it is inspiring to young girls throughout our society to fight for their passions and to make a difference. Author Chelsea Clinton and illustrator Alexandra Boiger succeed in compiling beautiful, timely stories of women that need to be shared.

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The story begins by showing a young girl in a museum, which is exhibiting portraits of important women in American history (notice Hillary Clinton in the background). The book emphasizes that even though these women where often told “no”, they were able to persist and follow their dreams. This message shows the importance of celebrating strong females who may become important role models in the lives of young women.

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This story highlights both women who we often learn about in school and women who are less known and celebrated. For example, one featured woman is Virginia Agpar, who became a doctor despite her superiors discouraging her and created a critical test for infants. Each woman’s story is depicted with a stunning image showing their amazing feats and hinting at the time period in which they lived. In addition, the book features a powerful quote from every woman.

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My favorite section highlights Ruby Bridges because it shows that women do not need to be adults to make a difference. Ruby persisted when she was just a kindergartner, a pioneer for her educational rights. The other women featured in the book are: Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Covin, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor.

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The story closes on a scene where 3 young girls have discovered a favorite pioneering woman and a call to action for the future female leaders of our nation and the world. Our society often puts women down and many times powerful female role models are not brought to the forefront in discussing history in the classroom. This is discouraging for young girls, but this book proves that women of all races and creeds have fought against this societal repression and have made huge strides that we are all thankful for, making it both an educationally and an inspirationally necessary work for children.

Rachel Platt

Free Friday: Soul Looks Back in Wonder

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Trendy Tuesday: If You Give A Mouse A Cookie

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It’s hard not to be cliché on Trendy Tuesday, but I couldn’t resist reviewing this classic picture book. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie is the first book of Laura Numeroff’s If You Give… series and was illustrated by Felicia Bond. The storyline (if by chance you’ve never read it or have forgotten over the years) is circular, where the mouse asks his owner for a cookie, then wants a glass of milk to go with it. Then he wants a mirror to check if he has a milk mustache, and the domino effect continues until he decides he wants another cookie.

The illustrations in this book are vibrant and full of color. They are done in colored pencil. There is also a lot of white space, which makes the illustrations smaller on the page and less distracting. Bond uses interesting perspectives in some of her drawings that exaggerate some parts of the story. You can see in this illustration the bright colors of the grass and the boy’s jeans, and then the depth used to show the sidewalk up to the house.
img_0416Some of the written text will end like a cliffhanger. This is a fun characteristic of the book because it leads the reader or listener to the next page in anticipation. It also makes the book a little more unpredictable, because some continuations of text are just small additions that tack a funny ending to the sentence.img_0417

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This book is very fun to read with children and not difficult to follow. It is definitely still a trendy tale, even if it was released over 30 years ago. I would read this story to any age level and there are so many fun classroom or at home activities that can be created from this book. There is even a board game on the back cover of the Special Edition that I looked at! If that’s not the cutest thing ever, I don’t know what is.

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Post by: Jenna Adamczak

I Dissent – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

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I Dissent – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

Written by Debbie Levy

Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

I Dissent uses the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman on the US Supreme Court, to tell a powerful story speaking up for what is right. The book tells Ginsburg’s story, from her humble upbringing to her numerous accomplishments as a judge, celebrating each and every disagreement that shaped her legacy. Ultimately, readers of this book learn that making a difference requires hard work and a willingness to question the status quo.

One part of the writing style that makes I Dissent both compelling and engaging is that it is told through a collection of anecdotes that help the reader to gain a sense of Ginsburg’s character. Some of the stories it tells are small – like when Ginsburg protested by writing with her left hand or was kicked out of the chorus because of her poor singing skills – while others are key events in her life – like when Ginsburg chose to go to law school, even though there were very few girls in her class. These stories help young readers to relate to the future Supreme Court justice, and see that they are never too young to take a stand.2016-12-08-19-59-493

In addition to telling Ginsburg’s story, I Dissent provides an introduction to the workings of the Supreme Court. It explains how Ginsburg became a justice, and her role in writing the opinions during cases. The book also exposes readers to an array of courtroom vocabulary – throughout her story, Ginsburg dissents, objects, resists, disapproves, and disagrees. Further, the book refers to real-life court cases that are meaningful to even the youngest readers, such as racism and discrimination. I Dissent exposes its readers to the significance of the judicial branch – a topic that may seem distant or abstract to children.2016-12-08-19-59-494

The images presented in this book are extremely powerful because of their variety. On one page, Ginsburg is shown as a kind and loving mother, and on the next, a determined justice who is unwilling to conform to societal standards. At the beginning of the book, she is illustrated as a spunky yet ordinary little girl. At the end, she takes on the posture and demeanor of a superhero, complete with word art that mirrors the style of comic books. The diversity of ways in which Ginsburg is presented is important because it shows that none of these identities are mutually exclusive. Ginsburg does not need to sacrifice her family to be successful in her career, and she does not need to be timid to be kind. Through Baddeley’s illustrations, Ginsburg is presented as a real and well-rounded individual to which any child can aspire.2016-12-08-19-59-492

I Dissent would be a perfect book for teachers to bring into their classroom, because it provides a human view of government that will engage students in a way that their textbooks may not. Teachers can also use the text to talk about relevant social issues: I Dissent illuminates issues like racism and sexism, and encourages students to think about what laws and social norms in their own lives they might disapprove of. In this way, I Dissent could accompany a powerful lesson for middle grades students that strengthens their critical and evaluative thinking skills. Finally, the book sends an important message, especially to young girls, that speaking up does not make you stubborn, bossy, or disagreeable. Rather, having the courage to disagree is necessary in making a difference.2016-12-08-19-59-491

Post by Sami Chiang

Free Friday: My Pen

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Free Friday: My Pen

My Pen is an incredibly creative picture book by Christopher Myers, a Coretta Scott King Honor author and Caldecott Honor illustrator. Through the pages, readers glance into the mind of a young boy who finds solace in drawing pictures with his pen. He describes his joy in drawing with an almost poetic flair. The boy’s narration throughout the story makes his adventure more inclusive for the readers, as if they were stepping into his shoes and picking up his pen. It is an excellent tale that promotes children’s imagination in an age where many kids would rather pick up a tablet or cell phone than a book or a pencil; Myers suggests that these “old-fashioned” tools are essential for the complete creative development of a child.

My Pen immediately stands out due to its incredibly detailed illustrations. Myers cleverly drew each picture with pen and ink. One would think that a picture book containing only illustrations drawn with a simple black pen would be boring, but this book is anything but. Myers creates more lifelike scenes with a pen than some artists do with watercolor or oil paint. Each drawing includes so much depth; Myers details every wrinkle and shadow with subtlety and finesse. Just as impressive, each of the protagonist’s drawings look authentic, as if a child actually drew them. The contrast between these drawings and Myers’ actual illustrations is astounding–they couldn’t possibly have been drawn by the same hand, could they? The detail Myers brings to each of his illustrations is what makes them truly outstanding.

Myers’ subtlety in My Pen continues beyond the illustration quality. In my favorite spread, one in which the author draws a collage of children, he includes many children of color. Because the illustrations are black and white, and because it is not mentioned in the text, this is not something that a reader would notice upon first glance, but when I looked closer I saw shading, hair textures, and facial features that indicated that many of these children were black. Myers also included some white and Asian children, but the overlying majority is black. This is a perfect example of a multicultural book that doesn’t rely on its multiculturalism to tell the story; rather, it includes multicultural characters to provide readers of color with representation in literature and show the world that each ethnicity has diversity within itself. When I first read this book, I didn’t even ponder the race of the narrator or the author until I reached this page, but after backtracking and examining the pictures closely, I realized that they both were black as well. It is such an achievement to find a book that authentically represents our diverse population, and this book does that perfectly. I would recommend this for any teacher’s bookshelf and for any reader from kindergarten to fifth grade because the lessons it teaches are ones that anyone learn and appreciate.

By: Lexi Anderson

Winners Wednesdays: Art and Flying

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A book about a boy who tries to understand the hardships of life through art….

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Bird by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (2008)

How does this book qualify for Winner Wednesday, you ask?  Well, it won the…

  • Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award
  • Best of 2008, Kirkus Reviews (& starred review)
  • 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book
  • Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent & Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award (won by Shadra Strickland)
  • Bank Street College Best Children’s Book 2009
  • 2009 Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers
  • 2011 West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award

Zetta Elliott tells the difficult story of a boy named Mehkai (nicknamed Bird), who is trying to understand the conflicts occurring between his older brother, Marcus, and his family.  Marcus is a victim of drug addiction; he constantly fights with the family, vandalizes public spaces with graffiti, and hangs out with the wrong crowd.  Even though Marcus couldn’t beat his drug addiction, it is obvious that he still deeply loved and cared for his family, especially for Bird. ‘“Do what I say, not what I do,” he would snarl like a fierce pit bull.  Marcus could be scary sometimes.  But then he’d smile a little so I’d know we were cool.’    

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Bird really loves to draw.  He does it to pass the time and to help him think through all the things happening around him.  Drawing helps him to cope with his brother’s drug addiction and Granddad’s death.  Readers look up to how Bird deals with his family’s problems by using pencil and paper: a positive outlet for his confusion and mix emotions.    b_ze_3

This picture book is beautiful in many ways.  The illustrations are thoughtful and they blend the world of reality with the world of imagination.  It is also written in free verse, which reminds me of a street-style, loose rap.  

This book addresses hard topics: deaths of loved ones and drug addiction.  It may be difficult to use in a classroom; however, depending on where you are teaching, maybe most of the kids in your classroom are dealing with these things in real life.  That said, if Mekhai is a child they can relate to, then this book could be even more valuable to them and is worth bringing into the learning space.

~Posted by: Cynthia Vu