Jan 18, 2021

Putting the CELEBRATION in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday

 In the nine years I've been sharing picture books on this blog, I've had LOADS to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday recognitions. After reading this post, I invite you to use the search box in the right column menu to find previous featured titles. I've felt strongly positive about the books I chose to showcase, but MANY of them focus on history. MANY are biographic, inspiring and motivating and providing content that could have been missed in mainstream culture through relentlessly white-focused portrayal of American culture. Few, though, are contemporary, humorous, joyful, or playful. In large part that's because books of that type rarely existed. If they did they were the "precious few" that everyone already knew about. Think of Ezra Jack Keats's THE SNOWY DAY (and other titles).

The best news is that, as I began to assemble this collage of covers, I had to stop in order to have enough room for the rest of the blog post! These are only fifteen of my recent favorites, and there are so many more, including others that are featured in past posts on this very blog.


To honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on this national holiday commemorating his birthday, I'll share this bounty of beautiful recent books portraying
BLACK JOY! My celebration is that there are now so many picture books that portray readers of EVERY identity, allowing kids to see themselves in the pages of those contemporary exhuberant stories. My notes below will be a select few, but you can find more HERE, and HERE, and HERE, and HERE. In fact, while you check out those resources from others, you may want to subscribe to their blog posts, too!

Click the titles below to read some brief notes for any-and-all that appeal to you:

  MIXED ME is written by Taye Diggs and illustrated by Shane W. Evans. 

JABARI TRIES is written and illustrated by Gaia Cornwall

FOR BEAUTIFUL BLACK BOYS WHO BELIEVE IN A BETTER WORLD is written by Michael W. Waters and Illustrated by Keisha Morris.

JUST LIKE ME is written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

MY RAINY DAY ROCKET SHIP is written by Market Sheppard and illustrated by Charley Palmer.

SWISH! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters is written by Sizanne Slade and Little illustrated by Don Tate.

MY HAIR IS MAGIC is written by M. L. Marroquin and illustrated by Tonya Engel.

BLACK IS A RAINBOW COLOR is written by Angela Joy and illustrated by Ekua Holmes.

NORMAN The Amazing Goldfish is written by Kelly Bennett and illustrated by Noah Z.

THE WORLD MADE A RAINBOW is written by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Emily Hamilton.

ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER is written by Tami Charles and illustrated by Bryan Collier.

EVELYN DEL REY IS MOVING AWAY is written by Meg medina and illustrated by Sonia Sanchez.

BROWN BABY LULLABY is written by Tameka Fryer Brown and illustrated by A. G. Ford.

HELP WANTED: MUST LOVE BOOKS written by Janet Sumner Johnson and illustrated by Courtney Dawson.

DUSK EXPLORERS is written by Lindsay Leslie and illustrated by Ellen Rooney.

Whew!  Doesn't that look wonderful?  Well, despite this joyful shift in focus and subject matter, here's the bad news. Based on data that is collected and analyzed annually about the patterns of the publishing industry for children's books, progress is being made, but at a glacial pace. 

Minimal, barely budging progress.

2019 Data Analysis

“Keep Moving Forward,” is a theme from Dr. King’s address “Keep Moving the Mountain”, given at Spelman College on April 10, 1960. He said, 

“Keep moving, for it may well be that the greatest song has not yet been sung, the greatest book has not yet been written, the highest mountain has not been climbed. This is your challenge! Reach out and grab it and make it a part of your life…we must keep moving. If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but by all means keep moving…whatever you do you have to Keep Moving Forward.”

 I can think of no better advice than this to the industry and to the readers, buyers, and teachers of children's books: make your voices heard through recommendations, reviews, purchases, requests from libraries, and social media. Examine your own stock of picture books featuring Black characters and work to update your shelves, making certain to include current, colorful, uplifting titles like these.

Jan 16, 2021

Meet SOPHIE KOWALEVSKI, Queen of Mathematics

I have always found math to be easy, intuitive, and even fun. Don't take that as bragging, since it is the sheer (and lucky) consequence of good genes. I was born to parents who were very bright and raised with older siblings (also bright) whose headstart on life I often resented. Their activities presented a constant challenge for me to figure out whatever they were doing and match them, including card games, rote memorizing of "times tables", etc. It matters, too, that I never heard complaints among them that "math is HARD". 

Creston Books, 2020

Even so, I was in awe of the subject of this narrative biography for older readers.  NUMBERS IN MOTION: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics is among the latest of author Laurie Wallmark's  WOMEN IN STEM series, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. Sophie, too, had both nature-and-nurture benefits, raised by a father who was a professor of mathematics in a household with complex formulas plastered across her bedroom walls. 

The story behind that situation offers both humor and irony. When her father ran out of wallpaper for her bedroom, he pasted his old college notebook pages onto the blank spaces. Young Sophia's elastic and expansive mind absorbed the language of those formulas as readily as children in bilingual homes become fluent in both. She traced formulas, identified patterns and symbols, creating her own versions of mathematical stories. But her life was lived during an era in which females were rarely taught academics beyond those needed to run a household. Certainly not advanced mathematics.

Sophie's insatiable curiosity while still a child resulted in self-study of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and, eventually, the complex challenges of differential equations. Everything in her life raised questions that she was certain could be resolved by mathematics, including the patterns of a spinning top. The fact that such solutions seemed impossible only fueled her efforts. 

Sophie's undeniable  brilliance and determination earned her advocates from among her father's colleagues. Eventually, male professors and authorities bent or defied the rules that banned females from attending university classes, or gaining a doctoral degree, or becoming a professor. The social and political restraints of her time were more challenging than mathematical ones, but they, too, could be solved.

This biography manages a delicate balance of focusing mainly on Sophie's adult experiences with minimal time spent on the subject's childhood. In this case, those limited spreads of Sophie as a child, both in narrative and images, will hook young readers. What could possibly earn more empathy from a kid than being told NO to what you want most in the world? And Sophie was told NO throughout her life, including the laws that prevented women from leaving Russia unless permitted to do so by a father or husband. She was determined to reach Heidelberg University in Germany, the European center for mathematical studies. How she overcame those and other obstacles are sometimes jaw-dropping solutions, leading me to cheer her on and smirk in satisfaction with each page turn.

Wallmark's research is incredibly deep, and her expertise in deciding what to include is equally deft. The author's note is a valuable read, as is a page labeled "Sophie's math". Sophie is credited with solving many ageless math mysteries, including one labeled the mermaid puzzlebecause finding an answer was thought to be as elusive as finding a mermaid. Backmatter also includes a timeline, a bibliography, and a full page explanation about how and why Wallmark chose the spelling she did for her subject's name. I'll echo the author's hope that everyone will read this page, since it addresses an authoring-puzzle. Translation from other languages is an art form of its own, but when it comes to spelling names that originated in other alphabets, how can one choose and feel validated about that choice? This solution will surprise you, and also indicate how thoroughly Wallmark does her homework.

This is a book I wish had existed when I was growing up, a time when my library choices were minimal and few books held surprises or role models like this one does. The idea that the investigation of mathematical theories  was a potential career option never occurred to me. I suspect it never occurred to my teachers, either, even though the field obviously existed for centuries. Unlike Sophie, my drive was toward human puzzles and services. I harbored an ever-since-kindergarten-rules resentment of gender restrictions that would have made Sophie a personal hero. Throughout my long career in education I could have shared her story, raising her banner for curiosity, independence, and drive. I would have honored her personal motto for ALL of my students, but especially for girls: 


Laurie Wallmark had agreed to respond to some interview questions in a future post that will include the other titles in her series, especially the upcoming CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER: HOW ELIZEBETH FRIEDMAN CHANGED THE COURSE OF TWO WORLD WARS  (Abrams Kids, 2021) Until then, you can learn more about the "story behind the story" from other interviews about this book by reading her other blog tour interviews linked HERE.

And now, a PSA from this teacher to adults:

Even if your own life experience has been that "math is hard for me", PLEASE don't say that aloud in the presence of kids. Many adults are feeling frustrated or confused while supporting kids in distance learning or home schooling, but please start with an attitude that ANSWERS CAN BE FOUND, even when they are challenging. In a time with YouTube tutorials and countless other digital resources, dive in and struggle alongside the kids to make sense whenever possible. Or simply model asking questions and seeking help. A message that "some people" just aren't good at math is one of the most limiting messages you could send, especially it comes from adults who those kids love and admire. It is a pass to stop thinking, and gives your approval for not trying.

Sermon over. 

Jan 7, 2021

A Fiction Picture Book Giveaway! Winners listed now...

Congratulations to Dawn and Christa VZ, your book are in the mail!
Sloane, you haven't reached out with contact info, and I haven't been able to find you!
As of midnight (CT) 1/12/21 I'll donate your book to my local library or school. 
Same for Christa... hope to hear from you both via the contact tab, or DM through @PBWorkshop on Twitter or message on FB for Sandy Brehl Author.

My previous post celebrates the seven amazing finalists for the 2020 Cybils Awards in the fiction picture book category. We who served as Round One Panelists conducted very close readings and evaluations of nearly two hundred nominees to arrive at these stellar finalists. Among those many choices were more than a few that missed the final seven by a hair's breadth.

Here are four lovely fiction picture books I read in recent months. These were provided by MineDitions with no promise of a review. As usual, though, their books are very high quality and worthy of our attention. That's not to mention that they are equally entertaining for both kids and parents.

EUGENE AND THE SOUNDS OF THE CITY is written and illustrated by Sylvie Auzary-Luton. In this lighthearted and lively story, Eugene is a colorful dancing bear who recognizes and moves to the musical beats of a busy city. Its animal residents are depicted in light pen sketches as human-styled (and generally irritable) urban dwellers who can't be bothered. The minimalist text, onomotopoeitic noise-words, and humorous situations leave this berated bear to twirl alone.  Until... his happy feet are contagious. Lots to see, imagine, and "hear" in this lovely book.

is written and Illustrated by Domenico Granata. The art style and characters of this picture book are quite different from EUGENE's story, and yet they bear(ha!) strong similarities. Both characters are living their full lives, following their distinct personalities. 
Kids (the ones who will identify with animal characters and look for themselves in picture book stories) are born in their own "packages", hard-wired with widely-varied levels of sensory responses, anxiety, adventuresome drives, and other personality patterns. This Little Bird has a drive to discover, revealed on the opening page and continuing on to the end, even after some rethinking of his plans is called for.

SCHOOL IS COMING is written by Dany Aubert and illustrated by Catherine Leblane, one of several titles featuring young BEAR. In this case, the small bear is a type who worries, sometimes a bit, sometimes more. With school looming in the weeks and months ahead, those worries swell. The cub's parents in this case are perfectly suited to the timid small guy, never pushing, but encouraging and allowing him to grow into his own awareness that could school actually be fun.
 This might be good choice for young ones who had a brief experience with physical school (or even none). They might anticipate returning, soon or next year, with an unexpected level of concern. A bonus for those who fall in love with this story is that you can seek out more picture books featuring this fun family of bears. 

has author Renate Raecke and illustrator Jonas Laustroer reworking a twelfth century  tale with traditional characters. The rich text and lush illustrations pair perfectly in this extended, almost chapter-like picture book. Established readers will relish the very clever personality of Reynard the Fox and  the absolutely gorgeous scenes portrayed on double page spreads that alternate with full pages of complex text. As a read-aloud with younger ones it will tickle funny bones and provide experience with advanced language and vocabulary.

This is a humorous set of stories that offer an analogy for being both amused by and learning from human nature through the animal characters. It could also encourage a trip to the library to compare to other versions of these classic tales.

Now, about that giveaway...

Drumroll, please!

If you are interested in owning or gifting one of these lovely books, the process is very simple. Each of the following comment categories will produce a ticket with your name on it, which will land in a basket designated for each title. You may enter as many times as you wish by commenting below, separately, for any/all of the following directions:

  • Comment to provide your preferred title.
  • Comment that you have shared this post on any of the following: Twitter, Instagram, and FaceBook. (Each site shared is another raffle ticket.)
  • Comment about some another book you recommend from 2020, one that you feel has been overlooked among the annual awards lists arriving in the world.
The deadline for these many comments is Sunday evening, 7:00 PM CT. (January 10, 2021)
The winners will be contacted directly no later than Monday noon. If winners do not respond by the end of Monday, I'll draw and notify another winner for that title. 
Once all are notified and the books are ready to mail, I'll add names here (first names only).
Good luck!
(Offer only available for mailing within the USA.)

I am intentionally ignoring all current news as a gift to myself for today. Posting these words of praise and a giveaway is my effort to release some positivity into a day following one that was, perhaps, the most heartbreaking in my lifetime. For ideas about discussing those events with students, check HERE.  

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.