Tag Archives: united states

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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Free Fridays: The Keeping Quilt

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The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco depicts the history of an immigrant family as they acclimate to America over many generations while preserving their heritage through a quilt.  The story is based on Polacco’s own heritage, and is told from her perspective.  The story opens when her Great-Gramma Anna, having just come to New York from Russia with her parents, begins her new life with only a dress and a babushka to remind her of home.  Once she outgrows them, her mother uses pieces from the dress and babushka, combined with articles of clothing from family members back in Russia, to create a quilt to remind them of home.  We see how the quilt follows Anna throughout her life, from carrying on their Jewish heritage to getting engaged and then married, and then to welcoming her daughter, Patricia’s grandmother, Carle.  The story continues to see how the quilt plays a role in Carle’s life, and then her daughter, Patricia’s mother, Mary Ellen’s.  The quilt is always there, in times of hardship and joy, as Anna dies and Patricia is born. Patricia describes how the quilt has been used in her life, and the story ends with her holding her own daughter in it.

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The Keeping Quilt emphasizes the importance of maintaining one’s heritage while still moving forward in life.  We see traditions carried on but also how times and customs change.  There are four weddings shown in this book, one for each girl who has owned the quilt.  Each one is married beneath it as a huppa, and each incorporates a gold coin, bread and salt into the ceremony.  But we also see how the generations slowly change.  In Anna’s wedding, the men and women celebrate separately, but then at Carle’s wedding they celebrate together but do not dance with each other.  At Mary Ellen’s wedding there are both Jews and non-Jews present, and Mary Ellen wears a suit instead of a dress.  Patricia’s wedding shows men and women dancing together, and she incorporates a sprinkle of wine for laughter.  The changes are gradual, but by the end we see many key differences between Anna and Patricia’s weddings.  Teaching this book can be used to show children not only a different culture than they may be used to, but also how heritages may be maintained while still moving forward.

This book includes beautiful pencil illustrations by Polacco herself, shown in shades of gray with the only color being the quilt.  The drawings are incredibly realistic, with facial expressions depicting lifelike emotions to match the scene.  We see an evolution of the facial structure as the family intermixes with the American culture. As the book progresses we can clearly see that time is passing based on the changing fashions, settings and furniture and also through the additions of technologies such as cars.  But, in almost every picture there is some depiction of the Jewish faith, whether it’s a Yamaka, a Rabi, or a Torah, showing the value they still place in their heritage.

The 25th anniversary edition includes an additional fifteen pages of the story that picks up where the original book ended and tells how the quilt has continued to live on.  A new chapter in the family begins when the quilt becomes so worn out that Patricia’s children surprise her with a new, identical quilt.  Patricia makes the hard decision to donate the original quilt to a museum, but we see how the new quilt carries on the story.  We continue to see the changing of cultures in this addition, with Patricia’s daughter marrying another woman, but still under the huppa of the quilt.  This new addition shows that the legacy of the quilt lives on.

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This book would be great with a wide range of ages, and can spark a discussion about different cultures and the idea that every family has a history that lives on through children.  We really enjoyed reading this book and were moved by how such a powerful story was told in such an understandable way.  Combined with the beautiful illustrations, this book will continue to be cherished for generations to come, just like the keeping quilt.

By Mary Nobles Hancock and Adrianna Moss

My America Poetry Atlas of the United States

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Lee Bennett Hopkins has selected 50 wonderful poems for My America Poetry Atlas of the United States. The poems are grouped by geographic regions within the United States and portray a beautiful and original representation of our country. Many of the poems have a special ability to take the reader back in time to imagine how life was lived many years ago. The other poems portray present-day depictions of the United States. The hopes and dreams of our nations citizens are expressed in each and every poem.

This book can be incorporated into many education settings. For example, it can be particularly useful to introduce certain geographic regions during a Social Studies lesson while also studying poetry. There are many descriptive words throughout the book and each poem offers its own, unique feeling and mood.

The illustrations are majestic and calming. They depict the United States in a very peaceful and beautiful way. As a special bonus, each region has its own map  and fascinating facts for each state. This is a book that every classroom should have and that every traveler will enjoy!

– Mary Frances Griffith