Dec 1, 2017

The Statue of Liberty and Her Right Foot: Who Knew?

As a Cybils panelist last year my category was nonfiction picture books. This category is growing dramatically in the publishing world, in numbers and in the quality and variety of offerings. There are various reasons for this, but most importantly, in my book, is the fact that nonfiction books are consistently popular with kids.

(I've linked some previous  posts from my Cybils nonfiction year in the notes below.)

Among the things I enjoy most about nonfiction books for young readers, especially picture books, are those "AHA" moments they provide, no matter what the age of the reader.   
An added benefit of outstanding nonfiction books is that the "AHA" discoveries may come from a variety of sources. The rarity or oddity discovered may reveal an entirely "new" person or event. (HERE and HERE). Or, some unnoticed or unknown aspects of a highly familiar topic may be offered, like discovering a hidden sweet in the center of a salty snack. Books can provide quirky surprises about the very famous SHAKESPEARE (Will's Words), or insights into well-known modern folks like Anne Frank and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Stunning discoveries can be equally gasp-worthy when exploring plant and animal topics, geology, or space

Even though my category as a Cybils panelist this year is poetry, I continue reading widely and often in other categories. The end-of-year season for best-of books is upon us, and that includes lists devoted exclusively to nonfiction for young readers. The New York Public Library issues a "One Hundred Best" list without sub-sorting categories, but it is obvious when scrolling through the list that nonfiction (and poetry!) have firm standing among their 2017 recommendations. 

Chronicle Books, 2017
Making the cut on many of these lists, with my personal prediction of more awards to come, is HER RIGHT FOOT by Dave Eggers, with art by Shawn Harris. In fact  (pun intended), this book has earned enough starred reviews to fill the crown of our very own STATUE of LIBERTY, the subject of the book. From the distinct perspective of the cover, the retro art makes it clear that this is no ordinary litany of facts and figures. There is no shortage of picture books that will provide information and insights to the statue's creator, it's symbolism and role in American history, the poet and poem, and the impressive statistics about the statue's size, weight, and other dimensions. A great place to start, if that's what you're seeking, is this post on Written And Bound's Blog.

In this case, though, the author's perspective is as distinct as the artistic perspective on the cover and on each page within. The book's heft (104 pages), the sturdy paper stock, and the illustration shifts from raw edges to heavy backline art to collage images underscore the  reader's  sense of this iconic statue's massive but vibrant significance in our national identity. 

This is a remarkable book on many levels. The retro art and palette, the pacing and integration of complex information, the depth of content presented in accessible conversational style, and the ultimate conclusion combine to make this an ideal book for middle grade readers. Second person direct address voice is difficult to find in quality books, and this one does it with flair. There is an ironic, nearly snarky, tone at times, but one that doesn't overdo it for effect or undermine the serious significance of the subject. 
Eggers's text spans the years prior to the creation of the statue,  through its iconic era, plants the statue firmly among the issues of today, and then strides on into the future. Those transitions are impressively handled and I can't think of another recent book that so effectively links history to current events, spanning 150 years. 
Back matter provides additional fuel to my argument that this picture book was never meant for babies, but is instead an ideal match for the humor, curiosity, and cautious idealism of adolescents.
You can read more of the glowing reviews on Chronicle's web page, here. For now, though, 

I'll close with this quote from Publishers' Weekly starred review:

★ “Eggers’s crucial and timely re-examination makes Liberty an active participant in a debate that is more contentious than ever.” 

Nov 12, 2017

In Daddy's Arms... a Mirror for ALL of Us

I'm nearly ready to post a series about some of the picture book poetry nominees I'm reviewing as a CYBILS panelist this season. Winnowing is no easy process, but one that I enjoy. For today, though, I want to spotlight three picture books that aren't among the nominees for 2017. I haven't posted in a couple of weeks, so I found myself running long on this one, and also sending readers to multiple cross-links. Please consider following my leads.

Veterans Day had me thinking about my dad, a WWII German-American soldier who was fighting on his grandparent's homeland. Earlier this year I reviewed JABARI JUMPS, by Gaia Cornwall.  If you missed it, I hope you'll take a moment to click the title above and read about the book, about the way it connected me to memories of Dad. Not only will it mean you'll get to know a bit about him, but also about  a book that continues to win praise from far-more-influential reviewers than I am. Look for this title to float to the top during end-of-year awards season. 

One of the most enjoyable things about having this blog is that it allows me to explore inner connections and reactions, (okay, emotions), that might otherwise get only passing attention from me while reading. Warm, sometimes worrisome, responses triggered by words and images on the page are essential to being "a reader". When the process of engaging with discreet text and pictures reveals a whole world in your hands, a world that vibrates through you and awakens memories, emotions, and connections, you know you are really reading.

Lee & Low Books, 2001
It's fun to read and review a newly released picture book like Jabari Jumps and celebrate it here, even before a tidal wave of praise and support arrived via social media. It's also fun to make a quiet discovery, to share it year after year and see its effects on young readers, only to learn much later that it had been awarded accolades that I was too busy teaching to notice at the time. 
IN DADDY'S ARMS I AM TALL: AFRICAN AMERICANS CELEBRATING FATHERS, an anthology edited by Javaka Steptoe, is such a book. My classroom copy of this book was worn-thin and replaced several times in the span of a few years. This long-time favorite collection of poems foreshadowed, in a sense, the current wave of anthologies (both poetry and prose) by  long-successful and newly minted diverse authors. It's loaded with poems kids love to memorize, to use as mentor text or forms, and to internalize- regardless the readers' ethnicities. My classroom students, though diverse, were primarily as "white" as I am, but the love within the pages transcended the images and settings to connect with the truth of each poem. 
What truth?
Just read that title.
There is no larger truth than that- IN DADDY'S ARMS I AM TALL. 

Pair this with a more recent release, CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT, written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. Hayes
I found this to be a brilliant blend of text and illustration, inviting readers through the door of a black barbershop, into the cultural experience of transformation and observation, to the process of growing into yourself and into your community. It's a celebration in concept and images, each with rhythm and depth, both with shimmer and shine, delivered with swagger and smiles. 
The afterward was particularly moving, to me, after recently hearing an interview with Gary Younge, author of ANOTHER DAY IN THE DEATH OF AMERICA, on my local NPR station, WUWM. I encourage you to listen to the full interview linked above.
Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, and I'd give it one, if I had one to give. But I disagree with three words in their note:
"One of the best reads for young black boys in years, it should be in every library, media center, and, yes, barbershop." 
Their statement is true, as far as it goes. I fear, though, that it will be seen as a book for YOUNG BLACK BOYS (which it is) but ONLY for them. Worse yet, only during February.
The only kinks I had in my hair were at Easter, the day after Mom sat me on a stool in the kitchen and gave me a "TONETTE". It fried my hair to frizz and kept my Easter bonnet from fitting. Even so, as I did with Jabari Jumps, as I and my students did with In My Daddy's Arms I AM Tall in this book, I found connection. It was easy to sense the truth underlying both common and different experiences. 
One of my earliest posts, written just weeks after launching this blog, was titled, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. Reading that might make what I say next more understandable. 
I recently heard a woman interviewed, a member of a white-nationalist group. She claimed to be one of the "fine" people taking part in recent protests throughout the country. She insisted that she didn't hate anyone or any race, she was just so tired of having everything "in her face". Why couldn't we go back to the way things were? (Paraphrasing, except for the quote.) She specified, when asked, that "everything" meant media displaying mixed couples, LGBTQIA individuals and couples, and "so many blacks" in every kind of program.
I feel certain that, if she read this post or even scanned the book covers, she would ask me, "Why?" Why would I feature THREE books with black characters when there are so many good books out there with whites. WHY would I want to erase her and her race from discussion? It's not even FEBRUARY!
My answer would be too long to include here, but this is the gist of it: 
These books are about HER, about her sons, their fathers, her community. 
She just sin't willing to find those connections, to look into the books and see herself reflected there. To recognize that the distinctions are important but the similarities are even greater.
After all, that's what those "many good books" about "whites" would say to any people of color or difference, right? That's the "in your face" reality, still, for 95+% of the books that people of color and difference encounter on most library, classroom, and bookstore shelves.  We  ask "others" to find themselves and their truths within  the words and pages  of "white" books NOW nearly as often as we have for centuries. Let's realize that they are provided NO CHOICE but to succeed in that "in your face" effort. Shouldn't we do the same? If we fail to see ourselves in these works, to connect at a visceral level with experiences and identities that are not our own, isn't it our own failure? 
Until we can do that, spontaneously, naturally, eagerly, our society will continue to see surface differences as barriers rather than mirrors. 
And we'll miss opportunities to find our own truths and emotions in everyone we meet.

Oct 28, 2017

The Poetry Plunge Begins: Cybils Nominees

After numerous trips to the library, I am now facing an enormous stack of 2017 books nominated for the CYBILS Poetry category. Some of which, (many, in fact),  I've read previously, but they will get close second reads. Also included are many that lingered on my "wanna read" list but hadn't yet reached the surface. Among the stack are a few that had flown under my radar until now, which is always exciting. With a deadline looming, I look forward to deep reads on each and every title.

If you care to read along, you can find all the nominated titles at the Cybils site, here.

I'll be keeping a record of my reading on my Goodreads account, which you're invited to follow. Some are NOT picture books, so they won't appear in posts here. Without indicating comparisons or preferences, I do plan to share brief notes about many of the picture books on this blog. Before I begin that process, though, I encountered this poem, shared on the WRITERS ALMANAC on 10/28/2017:

The POEM OF THE FUTURE, by J. R. Solonche
The poem of the future will be smaller.
It will fit in the palm of your hand,
on your wrist, in your ear.
The poem of the future will not need
bulky batteries or cumbersome wires.
It will be powered by moonlight and weed.
The poem of the future will be automatic.
It will go for months without routine maintenance.
It will be faster, smoother, with a digital tick.
The poem of the future will be lighter.
It will be made of plastics and exotic metals.
It will be available in hundreds of shapes and colors.
The poem of the future will make our lives true.
It will perform in a second what it takes
the poem of the present a day to do.
The poem of the future will talk to us.
It will say things like “Buy IBM,” and “Be my friend,”
and “Pulvis et umbra sumus.”
“The Poem of the Future” by J.R. Solonche from Invisible. © Five Oaks Press, 2017. 
That last quote, by the way, "Pulvis et umbra sumus", translates to "We are dust and shadow". 

I appreciate the wry irony of this poem. It takes little effort to bump into whiny complaints about kid-sized, digitally-dependent humans losing any capacity to sustain attention. The hyped pitch in the poem above implies the same, and yet ends with a nod to the truth: poetry may use fewer words, but they are the BEST words, the RIGHT words, the words that allow each reader to savor the delicious bits on the tongue while consuming and digesting dust, shadows, and insights. Poetry leaves room for second helpings, prompting recommendations and requests for more.
This, too, is the nature of picture books, so my task is a welcome one.
WORDSONG, September, 2017

For now, I'll close here and plunge into the stacks of books. First, though, I'll copy my Goodreads comments about one of the picture books, Read! Read! Read!, with poems by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater and illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke:  
"This has been in my TBR pile for more than a month, and now I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner. 
The collection of poems represents a range of structures, topics, rhymed and unrhymed verse, reflective and immediate concepts. Within its pages there are poems about Googling guinea pigs, dealing with grief in stories to be prepared for real-life grieving, stoking imaginations, exploring the past and the future, among many other recognizable moments in life. This is a must-have for every library and classroom and makes an ideal gift book as well."

With that, I'll close and "face the music" of poetry!

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.