Category Archives: Marvelous Picture Books

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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Marvelous New Picture Books: School’s First Day of School

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School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson, is exactly what it sounds like: the story of the first day of school, from the perspective of the school himself. In the story, Frederick Douglass Elementary is nervous for the first day of school, when he will be filled with children. Janitor assures him he’ll like them, but the school isn’t so sure. Although at first the school really doesn’t like the children, by the end of the day he learns lots of new things and decides that maybe they aren’t so bad. He starts to love being a school, and can’t wait for the kids to return the next day.

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The story begins with the construction of the school, Frederick Douglass Elementary. The school likes his name, and he likes when Janitor comes to clean him up. But he’s nervous to be filled with children.

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When the children arrive, the school feels overwhelmed. They climb all over his playground, open all his doors and lockers, and some even say mean things about him. The school feels awful about himself, because the children don’t like him; one little girl doesn’t even want to come in his front doors.

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The school listens to one of his kindergarten classes and learns all their names as they start the day. But just as they start to settle in, his fire alarm goes off. At lunch, a kid tells a joke that makes his friend squirt nose milk all over the school’s table. The joke was pretty funny, so the school isn’t really mad.

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For the rest of the day, the school listens in on the kindergarten class, and learns lots of new things. He feels great when the teacher hangs up a little girl’s picture of him on his wall. By the time the children leave, the school can’t wait to tell Janitor all about his day. He even asks Janitor if the kids can come back tomorrow. The school has finally learned to love being what he is; he knows he’s pretty lucky to get to be a school.

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I think this book is incredibly cute, and a great variation on the first day of kindergarten books that many of us read as young children. It would be great book to read to a child who is nervous or expressing doubts about the first day of school; because the main character is the school rather than a kid, it shows that the first day of school can be fun and exciting without making the lesson too obvious. Also, the unusual main character makes the book novel for kids, and makes them relate their own feelings about school to both the feelings of their classmates and the potential feelings of the school itself. Who knows, maybe their elementary school is thinking and feeling the same things as the school in the book!

This book has a good mix of words that kids will know and new words. This gives the parent/teacher an opportunity to discuss the unfamiliar words with kids, and really engage them in the reading of the book. This book could also be used as a way to introduce some of the school-related words that children may need to know before they start school for the first time, such as lockers, water fountain, and fire alarm. By introducing these words in the context of a school setting, the book helps children to connect the words and their meanings.

Finally, I love the simplicity of the illustrations in this book. They were made using paint and collage techniques, which gives them a rough, child-like appearance. They almost look as if a child created them. However, although they are simple, the illustrations show the diversity of the students at the school, as well as the variety of activities they engage in throughout the school day. The bright images are engaging and fun to look at, but don’t draw too much focus away from the text of the story. Also, setting the images against a white background really makes them stand out.

I love School’s First Day of School, and I think it would be a great book to read to any child about to enter school for the first time. It truly is a marvelous new picture book!

by Maya Creamer

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

Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat

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Imagine That! Is a new picture book by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. The way it is written reminds me of Balderdash!, the story about John Newbery. Imagine That! describes how the now loved children’s book, The Cat in the Hat, came to be.

The story begins by introducing the year 1954, and talking about why it was a great year to be a kid… unless you wanted to read! During this time, there were few books for young children to enjoy as they learned how to read. While books like Charlotte’s Web were being released during this time, there were few interesting books that would help a child make the transition from knowing a few words to being able to read more challenging books. The books they used in schools were boring.

A writer named John Hersey agreed, and he wrote in an article for a magazine that Dr. Seuss would be the perfect author to write a book for children that they would actually enjoy. The only problem was that he had to use words that were on the official list, not the made up words he loved to use in his stories. Dr. Seuss sat down and decided to write a book for a younger audience, but it was harder than he expected. He was limited to short words that first graders learning to read would understand. Finally, he saw the words “cat” and “hat” on the list and started from there.

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Dr. Seuss believed that rhyming words and comical drawings would get a young child’s attention. Using 236 different words, Dr. Seuss wrote a book that became popular all over the United States. Motivated by his success, Dr. Seuss continued to write rhyming books for young children first learning to read. When his friend challenged him to write a book using only 50 words, Dr. Seuss came up with Green Eggs and Ham.

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Imagine That! is well written, and the illustrations are colorful and lively. The story is informative and provides historical details, but it is interesting to read. The writing style and illustrations play off of and seem to be inspired by Dr. Seuss’s own creations, which are most likely familiar to the readers. Many of the pages even include doodles from Dr. Seuss’s books.

Some of the words in this book would be challenging for students first learning to read, but this book would be helpful for expanding and deepening the vocabulary knowledge of more advanced students. In addition, this book discusses the writing process of Dr. Seuss, which would be helpful when teaching students how to create their own stories. Brainstorming, challenge, and creativity are all highlighted in this book. The end of Imagine That! even includes writing and illustrating tips from Dr. Seuss. I would recommend this story for teachers who are working with students in the early stages of writing.

Teresa Heckman

Last Stop on Market Street

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I cannot say enough good things about Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s 2015 Last Stop on Market Street. I stumbled upon it quite by accident, tugging on its bright orange spine in the hopes that the book would be less dusty and worn than the others I’d found in the library…and I was not disappointed.

The book itself – the text and the images – are beautifully done. In fact, Last Stop on Market Street won both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor in 2016. De la Peña’s writing is nuanced: simple and straightforward, easy for a child to understand – but also embedded with imagery and poeticism. The descriptions are as vivid for the scenery as they are for the characters: just as “Nana laughed her deep laugh,” the bus “sighed and sagged.” On the very second page, our young protagonist CJ steps out of church into “outside air [that] smelled like freedom, but […] also like rain”; toward the end, his grandmother tells him that “when you’re surrounded by dirt, […] you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

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“‘Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt […] you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.'”

Nana is referring to the beauty of the sky – but she could easily be talking about Robinson’s pictures. They are colorful and detailed, done in strokes that give the book’s childish narrator a stake in the visual aspect of the story as well as the narration – Robinson colors the world as a child sees it. The images give off a mixed media feel: newspaper on one page, the birds on the page shown above as if they have been cut from paper. And the figures themselves, of course, are vibrant, colorful representations of all of humanity: in wheelchairs, on foot, with headscarves, with no hair at all, tattooed, light-skinned, dark-skinned, elderly, middle-aged, bespectacled.

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The book is not one, however, that is simply beautiful. It is an emissary of so many beautiful messages: on being grateful, being positive, finding beauty everywhere, helping others, and, above all, perspective. Each character is unique; though the narrator and Nana use Standard American English, CJ has a clear dialect (see image below) that is not looked down upon by the narrator or criticized. His skin color, too, is darker than the average children’s book protagonist’s – but the book is about more than diversity.

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Throughout the book, CJ whines about his responsibilities, about not having a car…but at the end, CJ is gently reminded – as is the reader – to shift his perspective and realize that we are all luckier than we think. Last Stop on Market Street is a reminder to be grateful, compassionate, and respectful, and is a touching story that crosses cultures and class without coming off as as preachy or, on the other end, pitying. Instead, it recognizes not the deficits of different groups of people but the strengths; it celebrates humanity and the goodness de la Peña sees in us all.

 

 

-Addison Armstrong

Marvelous New Picture Books: We Found a Hat

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We Found a Hat

Author: Jon Klassen

Illustrated by: Jon Klassen

When I heard that Jon Klassen had finally written the conclusion to the “Hat,” trilogy, partner to I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat, I jumped at the chance to review it. I was not disappointed. We Found a Hat stays true to Klassen’s trademark dry humor, minimalistic illustration and subtly profound attention to underscoring teachable lessons. I continue to be amazed by Klassen’s ability to convey themes as vast and complex as loss, problem-solving, morality and friendship through devices as simple as animals and headgear.

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We Found a Hat chronicles the journey of two turtles, companions and friends, who stumble upon a hat. They find the hat together, try it on, and confirm that it  suits both of them. However, there is only the one hat, and there are two of them. They conclude that it would not be right for one turtle to get the hat and the other turtle to go without it. So, they abandon the hat and attempt to forget they had ever found it.

This turns out to be easier said than done. They try to distract themselves, watching the sunset together and trying to fall asleep. While one turtle dreams, the other creeps away toward the hat. The turtle appears quite tempted by the now-available hat.

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But then, his friend shares his dream, a dream in which both turtles have hats, and both turtles look very good in them. Compelled by this dream, the turtle returns to his friend and they fall asleep together, both dreaming of a companionship where they wear hats together. 

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The illustrations in We Found a Hat are quite minimalist, in keeping with Klassen’s traditional style, but convey a great deal of emotion and meaning. I especially liked Klassen’s attention to the turtles’ eyes, which shift and peer in a wry and humorous way. In some cases, the turtles eyes give away their true emotions, glancing slyly at the hat or at one another.

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Klassen’s illustrations depict time in an interesting way, beginning with entirely light pages, continuing through a pink evening sunset, and ending with the turtles floating in a dark night sky, both donning identical white hats.

We Found a Hat imparts to readers one of the most basic rules of friendship: if the friendship is true, nothing can disrupt it, not even the most beloved of hats.

 

Post by: Natalie Gustin

 

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