Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama is the newest book by Hester Bass, illustrated by E.B. LewisSeeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama is a superb addition to the genre of narrative non-fiction, and a welcome addition to books about the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning in January of 1962, Bass sets the scene, telling readers that life in Huntsville, known as the "Space Center of the Universe," is good, but not for everyone.

Bass draws the reader in immediately with an instance of segregation that was new to me when she writes of a girl who is not allowed to try on shoes and must show pictures of her feet in order to be sized. Yet, the seeds of freedom have been planted in Huntsville and Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama spends the rest of the book detailing the non-violent, peacefully organized actions that kept the violence that was exploding in other parts of the South at bay. With the reporters ignoring ongoing marches and silent protests, claiming that segregation is "just the way it is," organizers change tack. From eating at a lunch counter to Blue Jean Sunday. Instead of spending money on new dress clothes for Easter, black leaders secretly ask the residents of Hunstville to wear denim, leaving the county to do their shopping. It is estimated that Hunstville merchants lose about one million dollars. And, when George Wallace comes to Hunstville in his segregation-fueled campaign for governor, the black people of Hunstville meet his hatred with peaceful patriotism, letting go of helium balloons with notes of freedom tied to the strings.

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama ends on Monday, September 9, 1962 with the integration of Huntsville school as Dr. Sonnie W. Hereford III walks his six year old son, Sonnie W. Hereford IV into Fifth Avenue School. Interestingly, days earlier at a private religious school with all black students across town, twelve white students begin school without incident in the first case of so-called reverse integration in Alabama.

As is often the case, the Author's Note holds more fascinating information for which I was grateful, although I do think that a timeline of important events in the Civil Rights Movement would have been a very useful addition to this book. Bass does a thorough job tracing the roots of segregation from the practice of slavery to Slave Codes and Jim Crow laws. She points out the incidences of violence that did occur in Huntsville and ends her Author's Note with the sad fact that, less than a week after the triumph of integration in Huntsville schools, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing four girls. She goes on to note that President Kennedy was killed before he got to see "one of those Huntsville rockets send a man to the moon." Bass ends with these thoughtful, moving words:

Sometimes change comes slowly. Sometimes change comes all at aonce. But change usually comes when someone decides that enough it enough. That's what happened in Huntsville. That's what is still happening across America and throughout the world. Sometimes all it takes is one person to start something good. In your community, that person could be you.

Source: Review Copy

Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation's Capital by Tonya Bolden, 96 pp, RL: 4

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, is set during the days before the American Revolution and is narrated by a thirteen-year-old slave girl. It is one of my favorite historical fiction novels and why I was so excited to read Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation by multi-award winning author Tonya Bolden. For this book, Bolden, who was writing another book when she stumbled upon two pages from Michael Shiner's diary on the Library of Congress's website, shares the events of Shiner's life as recorded in his diary, providing a parallel timeline of events in the growth of the nation's capital.

Michael Shiner was born into slavery in Maryland in 1805 and was brought to Washington D.C. by his owner, Thomas Howard, as a child and leased to the Navy Shipyard. Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation is visually stunning, rich with primary-source documents and archival photos and illustrations. Bolden begins her book in 1814 with British troops marching on the capital, Shiner, who was in the custody of a Mrs. Reid residing on Capitol Hill, looking on. In his diary Shiner, reflecting on the moment, writes that the soldiers were like "flames of fire - all read coats and the stocks of their guns painted red vermillion and the iron work shined like a Spanish dollar."

In 1840 Shiner is free, and he decides to continue living in Washington D.C. despite the laws called "black codes," which are randomly enforced. Explosions are killing workers in the Navy Yard, where he is now an employee rather than a leased slave. He had a family and continues to write about those around him in his diary. In 1880 Shiner succumbed to smallpox and his obituary from the Evening Star newspaper is reprinted in Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation

With pictures, photos, paintings, quotes and more, my review barely does justice to Bolden's book. Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation is sure to draw the attention of any young readers who love great visuals and have a taste for history, and it is definitely a welcome addition to the non-fiction shelves. Be sure not to miss Bolden's any of other books,  but especially Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, a rags-to-riches story that begins in Indian Territory in 1902, another fascinating examination of the intricacies of American history seen through the lens of one person's life.

Source: Review Copy


Stanley the Farmer by Wiliam Bee

I don't know how I missed this new series from one of my new favorite author/illustrators, William Bee, but Stanley, the machine-loving, job-exploring hamster made his debut last year in these brilliant, bright, big format books from Peachtree Publishers. Stanley the Builder and Stanley's Garage were the first two books in the series and now Stanley the Farmer joins the series with Stanley's Diner coming this fall!

The text in Bee's Stanley books is perfect - straightforward and descriptive and the names of the characters, from Shamus to Little Woo to Myrtle and Charlie are fun, but the illustrations are the real gems here. Thick black lines and white backgrounds make the simple, detailed illustrations pop off the page. Bee begins each book with a fantastic spread of the tools of the trade needed for each new venture. The text, while simple, covers all the aspects of the job at hand that will feed little listeners hunger for knowledge and enhance their vocabulary. These books are a MUST for everyone, animal and truck lovers alike, and would make beautiful gifts!

The illustrations below are from the first three books.

More Stanley books!

And coming September of 2015!

More William Bee books!

Coming in March of 2015!

Migloo's Day

Worst in Show, illustrated by Kate Hindley

Digger Dog, illustrated by Cecilia Johnson

and the train goes . . .

Source: Review Copy


The Baseball Player and the Walrus by Ben Loory, illustrated by Alex Latimer

The Walrus and the Baseball Player by Ben Loory and illustrated by Alex Latimer is such a perfect book! Perfectly paced, perfectly mirrored and perfectly kind of weird - in the best way possible that kids are sure to love. At its most basic, The Walrus and the Baseball Player is a story about the responsibilities that come with having a pet. But it's also about discovering what you love, finding a way to make it work and picking up the pieces and going on when it doesn't. And The Walrus and the Baseball Player is about hard work - the hard work of taking care of a pet and taking care of yourself.

The Walrus and the Baseball Player begins, "Once upon a time there was a baseball player. He played in the major leagues, and made lots and lots and lots of money. People came from all around the world to see him play. But the baseball player was unhappy. And no one knew why." A trip to the zoo and some time spent at the walrus enclosure prove to be life changing. That night, as he lay in bed, the baseball player found himself "laughing, remembering the walrus's antics" - the way he lolled, the funny noises he made and the way he bobbed his head as he gobbled down fish. The baseball player decides that he will buy the walrus.

Of course, you can't just go to the zoo and buy a walrus, but the baseball player does his research, builds an amazing enclosure with all the perfect amenities, including a retractable roof in case it gets too hot or too cold and barrels of walrus vitamins. With characteristic deadpan and straightforwardness, Loory writes, "Basically, he showed the zoo people that he meant business." Everything goes swimmingly from then on for the baseball player and the walrus. Until the baseball season starts up again. The baseball player misses the walrus so much that he quits the team and things spiral downward from there. But, the baseball player isn't a quitter. And he finds a way to bring happiness back into his life that is maybe just a tiny bit expected, but also really cool.

Latimer's illustrations are crisp, colorful, filled with detail and just the right amount of cartoonish for this sort of serious, sort of silly story. 

More books illustrated by Alex Latimer:

Source: Review Copy


Crossover by Kwame Alexander, 237 pp, RL: 4

I am embarrassed to admit that I had The Crossover by Kwame Alexander sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year before it won the Newbery Award this year. I read the blurb about basketball phenom Josh Bell and his twin brother Jordan and couldn't get excited, even though I LOVE verse novels and am continually amazed by them. It's just that I have zero interest in sports and sports stories. Of course, I should have known that The Crossover would be so much more than a basketball story. And, as breathtaking and unforgettable as The Crossover is, had I read it before February 2, 2015, I do not think I could have predicted that it would win the (well deserved) Newbery Award. Of course, that's not really saying much since the ALA awards are rarely predictable. 

So, what makes The Crossover so much more than a basketball story? First, let me note that one thing that Alexander does in The Crossover that I have not experienced in the handful of verse novels I have read, is write in a way that reads more like a traditional poem than the typical verses employed which, short of thought provoking line breaks, can read more like vignettes. When narrator Josh is on the court, his verses sing and Alexander's style makes you hear the poetry flow in your head as you read. I was enthusiastically describing The Crossover to two fifth grade boys and ended up playing a sample of the audio book, which hooked them immediately. Observing this, I purchased the audio book, which is read by Corey Allen, on the spot and added it to my school library's collection. Unfortunately, not having any knowledge of the sport, I can only trust other reviewers, like Cornelius Eady and his superb review for the New York Times, when he says that Alexander "takes great delight in borrowing the energy of rap and hip-hop to translate the game's heat, speed and joy of motion to the page." And, while, as Eady notes, basketball is the "red-hot engine" of the novel and the glue connecting the brothers to the "source of the wisdom their father passes down," The Crossover is as much, if not more about family.

Josh and JB are the sons of Chuck Bell, a former European-league basketball player who chose to leave the game rather than have knee surgery and chance to play for the Lakers, and a middle school assistant principal. A stay at home father and personal coach, the boys are especially close to their father, but their mother is a powerful force in their family as well. The Crossover is divided into sections - quarters, like the game itself - and has Josh's twelve vocabulary words and Chuck's 10 Rules of Basketball serving as titles for poems that add rhythm in the book. Although they are twins, the brothers have their differences, inside and out. Josh, who has been nicknamed "Filthy McNasty" by his dad, after a Horace Silver song, is an inch taller and has dreadlocks while JB prefers a shaved head. "Five Reasons I Have Locks," and "Ode to my Hair" pay tribute to Josh's hair, while "ca-lam-i-ty" recounts how Josh loses his hair (a snip that was supposed to take one lock and instead took five) when he loses a bet to JB. This is the start of a rift between brothers that feels like a Greek myth at times.

As Josh grows angry and he and JB grow apart, their game falters and bad choices are made but a strong family bond is the glue that keeps the Bells from falling apart.  Mrs. Bell works to keep Chuck away from salty foods because he refuses to have his hypertension treated and the brothers do their best to conform to her rules, with an increasing awareness of the dangers posed to their father. What makes The Crossover so highly readable, especially for a non-sports-fan, is the story of this family. Eady writes that The Crossover is "most boldly and certainly a book about tenderness. It's the trigger that causes a rift between the brothers, and what will ultimately heal them. More important, readers should observe the careful way that Alexander build the small moments between the brothers; between the brothers and their father; between father and mother." And in noting this, Eady points out what is so miraculous about a truly good verse novel - the small moments that the author organizes and arranges, connecting poems, building to emotionally charged moments, creating a crisp, clear picture with deft, swift brushstrokes.

Kwame Alexander also created Book in a Day which is a:

one-day, intensive writing/publishing workshop where students not only become authors, but they take on the responsibility of publishing their book. Three-to-four weeks after the workshop (depending on the quantity of books printed), copies of the student book are delivered and a launch is held to showcase the book.

The mission of BID is to: 

use poetry and literature, and an innovative student run publication program to foster engaged reading and writing skills that inspire a sense of authorship/ownership in children and young adults, which has proven to lead to greater academic confidence and achievement. Through curriculum and coaching, BID develops the literacy capacity of schools, libraries and other organizations, and leads the effort to encourage students to appreciate the power of language and literature.

Wow! I hope we can get a visit from Kwame at my school someday!

Source: Review Copy


Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai, 260 pp, RL: 4

I had the good fortune to listen to Thanhhà Lai talk about her new book, Listen, Slowly, before sitting down to write this review. In this interview, Lai talks about how she came to write her first, multiple-award-winning book, Inside Out and Back Again, the semi-autobiographical story of a young refugee's move from Vietnam to Alabama:

I have very specific reasons for writing in prose poems for "Inside Out And Back Again." You know, for years and years and years I could never get the voice right and I was working on this other novel. And finally one day I'm standing on a playground at 110th in Central Park and suddenly all these images started coming back to me. It would be sharp, quick images, like red and yellow hot dogs. And I realized, you know, I'm back inside the mind of that little girl who's standing on a playground in Montgomery, Ala., when I first entered this country. And I thought that's my voice. And I didn't know it was called prose poems and I had no idea tons of writers have been writing like this for years. This just tells you where my brain is. I thought that's how I'm going to convey that she's thinking in Vietnamese. Now - now we're onto Mai's world in "Listen, Slowly." She's not thinking in Vietnamese. She's thinking in snarky English...

Thinking about Lai's two books together deepened my appreciation of Listen, Slowly, which I have to confess felt a bit conventional at first. With Inside Out and Back Again, especially with the use of quick, sharp verses, Lai invites the reader to experience the feelings of alienation, disorientation and wonder that the young narrator feels as her family makes a new home in a new country. In Listen, Slowly, Lai takes the reader from one of the most iconically American locales possible, a beachfront community in Southern California, into the steamy geography of Vietnam. Lai's writing, with actual Vietnamese and dialogue in italics to symbolize Vietnamese, as well as her lush descriptions of the culture, from the food to architecture to the use of honorifics and the intense competitiveness among the youth, draw you in and enfold you, enrobe you, in the setting and the story.

To this setting, which felt as new and strange to me as Alabama felt to Hà, the main character of Inside Out and Back Again, is layered with wonderful characters and a compelling past that sets the story in motion. Mai (known as Mia outside of her home) is the only child of the youngest son in a family that fled Vietnam believing that their father had died in the war. When word comes from a private investigator that that the fate of Ông, the grandfather Mai never knew, is about to be discovered, Mai's father, a doctor, enlists her to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam where he will be spending the summer at his free clinic in a remote part of the country. Mai, a straight A student who dutifully studies the SAT vocabulary words her mother feeds her daily, had other plans. But, instead of unchaperoned trips to the beach with her lip-gloss obsessed bestie, Montana, Mai, who quips, "Guilt, very big in my family," is headed for six weeks of mosquito bites and boredom with Bà. Bà is a quiet, gentle woman who asks for nothing but is given everything by her grateful, successful, competitive children. As her youngest grandchild, Mai knows her as a loving presence, sharing slivers of lemon drops ("a whole one creates too much saliva and cuts the roof of her mouth, while a chopped piece releases just the right amount of sweet and sour") and her native language, which Mai understands but never learned to speak.

From Hanoi to Bà's village and onto Sài Gòn, Mai suffers the fate of a foreigner, napping on mats on the floor during the hottest hours of the day, breaking out in pimples all over her face from slathering on the sunscreen her mother packed her and succumbing to a violent intestinal upset that knocks her out for days. However, as she seems to stick out like a sore thumb, she is also gradually coming to understand her family's homeland and become comfortable with the seemingly strange rhythms of the days. Despite a rocky start, Mai is befriended by Út, a villager her own age with matching braces, a serious fondness for toads and a serious buzzcut, which Mai later learns was Út's attempt at getting out of the monthly hideous herbal treatment the villagers undergo to treat lice. As Mai suffers and adapts, Bà, the detective and the  guard he found who was with Ông in the tunnels that the Viet Cong used to counter the American forces perform a delicate dance as they negotiate a meeting.

Thanhhà Lai blends these curiously delicious, irresistible story threads like the ingredients in one of the many amazing dishes she describes Listen, Slowly to create a novel that is, like a good meal, satisfying and memorable.

Source: Review Copy


When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jill McElmurry

When Otis Courted Mama, written by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a new book about blended families, something that is rare the world of picture books, and even more rarely done well. That said, When Otis Courted Mama is done really well, so well that I almost hate to mention that it even is a story about blended families, preferring to refer to it solely as the great story - magnificently illustrated - that it is. But, since books for young children that touch on these themes are so rare, it must be said. Appelt has a winning way of telling the story of Cardell, the coyote, who had a "mostly wonderful life" before Otis. Cardell had a "perfectly good mama and a perfectly good daddy" who adored him. And Cardell "adored them, too. With good reason." The  "mostly wonderfuls" and "perfectly goods" take the edge off what could be a very didactic, Berenstain Bears type of story. Little listeners and young readers tend to be more assured of the authenticity of a character who has it good, but not perfect.

Appelt does a fine job of pointing out the good things about Cardell's perfectly good mom (champion scouting abilities and a master artist) and  perfectly good dad (master at playing Zig-the-Zag and making jalapeño flapjacks with saguaro syrup) along with the problems of dividing his time between two households, despite a "perfectly nice stepmama, Lulu, and his perfectly cute stepbrother, Little Frankie."

Cardell even seems to take his mother's oft-rejected suitors in stride, equally put off by Cleburne, who, despite being a good dancer, slobbered as he danced, the conceited, accordion playing Pierre and the know-it-all Professor Coot. However, Otis is a different matter and Mama does not share Cardell's opinion of him. However, Otis, through effort and thoughtfulness - and delicious prickly pear pudding - wins over Cardell and Mama. Appelt ends When Otis Courted Mama with everyone - both families - happily howling at the moon and these words;
After Otis, Cardell still had a perfectly good daddy and a perfectly goof mama, a perfectly nice stepmama and a perfecyly cute stepbrother. But now Cardell also had someone else: Otis!

Award winning books by Kathi Appelt:

Written and illustrated by Jill McElmurry:

Fantastic books illustrated by Jill McElmurry:

Source: Review Copy


Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mulally Hunt, 267 pp, RL: 4

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt will (and has in many advance reviews) be compared to RJ Palacio's Wonder for her portrayal of an outsider on the edges of mainstream education, an increasingly popular theme in middle grade literature. Palacio's main character Auggie, who struggles with a physical deformity, shares narrative duties with a few other characters, but his voice is unforgettable and endearing. Wonder is also an amazing opportunity for readers to experience the thoughts and feelings of someone who is judged by his appearances, his intelligence often overlooked. And in this way, Fish in a Tree is a fantastic glimpse into what it is like for narrator Ally Nickerson, an undiagnosed dyslexic, to have her other intelligences and talents overlooked or diminished. 

With a father in the military, Ally has moved a lot in her short life - seven school in seven years to be exact. Ally's her dad is stationed overseas, her mom works full time and her grandfather, also her best friend, has recently died. On top of that, Ally spends a lot of time in the principal's office and is running out of excuses for why she isn't getting her school work done. But, when Ally looks at the page, the "brightness of the dark letters on the white pages" gives her a headache and she ends up scribbling in frustration, making up excuses for why her work isn't getting done. Ally is already being ostracized and called "dumb" by the mean girls at school and her deepening sadness at her constant humiliation, from teachers, the principal and peers, seems like it might engulf her at times. However, Ally is able to escape through her amazing drawing skills and the magically creative movies that she sees in her head as well as her inventive ways of thinking about things, including her observation that gives the book its title, "If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it's stupid."

The arrival of Mr. Daniels changes everything for Ally, though. Mr. Daniels is less interested in fitting a square peg into a round hole and his lessons are innovative, engaging and excitingly non-conventional, allowing Ally to exhibit aspects of her intelligence. At the same time Ally begins to feel comfortable with Mr. Daniels, she begins a friendship with two other marginalized kids, Keisha and Albert. Hunt layers in interesting details beyond great lessons, like Keisha's cupcake company with a special twist - she has found a way to bake words into the center of the cupcakes - and Albert's scientific practicality, love of Star Trek (and an definite Mr. Spock type clipped way of speaking) and unflappability in the face of mean girls. Midway through Fish in a Tree a diagnosis is made and Ally begins to feel a bit less hopeless, especially when Mr. Daniels begins special tutoring for her after school. There is an especially poignant scene near the end of the book where Ally finds herself in Principal Silver's office once again, this time to deliver a note naming her student of the month for "hard work and good attitude." Before she delivers the note, Ally stares again at a poster she was once asked to read and couldn't - "Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is ask for help." 

As an adult reader, I had to willingly suspend my disbelief that a child could make it to sixth grade - even with moving schools every year - without any kind of intervention and assessment on the part of her educators. That said, my husband who has taught high school for over 20 years has one or two students every year who cannot read so I know this can happen. While I loved the lessons that Hunt invented for Mr. Daniels to teach - especially the one where he introduced students to all sorts of great minds and high achievers who are also dyslexic, I wish that there had been more extensive descriptions of what it was like for Ally when she saw the words on the page or tried to write, although Hunt did a great job with Ally's excuses. While Ally is a richly drawn character, I found her classmates to be a bit two-dimensional and stereotypical at times, but I have no doubt that young readers will embrace Fish in a Tree the way they have other books about overcoming adversity.

Also by Lynda Mullaly Hunt:

Source: Review Copy


Hero by Sarah Lean, 196 pp, RL 4

Hero is the newest book from  Sarah Lean. I reviewed A Hundred Horses last year and was impressed and moved by her story of a mysterious girl without a family, another girl mourning the absence of her father and a legend about wild horses. Hero didn't quite grab me right from the start, the way A Hundred Horses did, but once I was hooked I could not put the book down.

Hero begins with narrator Leo Biggs telling us that he can "fit a whole Roman amphitheater in my imagination, and still have loads of room. It's big in there. Much bigger than you would think. I can build a dream, a brilliant dream of anything and be the here I want . . ." Living in an English village built on Roman ruins, Leo sees lions, gladiators and the crowds in the stands of the amphitheater, winning the approval of Jupiter, as he walks down the street of the English village he lives in. Feeling like he has no talents that can win him awards and make his parents proud of him, Leo keeps his imaginings to himself. A turn of events puts Leo in the curious and complicated position of being befriended by Warren Miller, the new boy who is everything Leo is not - popular and confident with a gang of followers. Leo also finds a new friend in his aging neighbor, Grizzly Allen, someone who sees and empathizes with Leo's need to imagine himself a hero.

Unfortunately, Warren and his gang put Leo through a loyalty trial that, unbeknownst to Leo, ends in the destruction of a valuable possession of Grizzly's. When Warren's gang try to chase down and capture Jack Pepper, Grizzly's daughter's dog who has taken a shine to Leo, Leo finally decides to take a stand. Instead ends up in the pond, wet and freezing, carrying the dog who was injured in the process, home in his arms. Without intending to, but also without setting his family straight, Leo lets them believe that he rescued Jack Pepper. Leo soon learns that being thought a hero is nowhere near being a hero and Leo finds himself more isolated and alone than any of his imaginings. When the passing of a meteor that the town has excitedly been anticipating arrives with a destructive sonic book and a sinkhole in the heart of the village, Jack Pepper, who had been obediently waiting for Leo outside a shop, is lost and Leo struggles, feeling buried under his lies, the loss of his best friend, his betrayal of Grizzly and threats from Warren. But it is the thought that he let down the loyal Jack Pepper that weighs on him most.

Hero itself is like a meteor - a streamlined and powerful, heading toward a moment of impact or import. Yet, it is perfectly pitched for its young audience. As an adult reader, I anticipated the worst in moments of suspense, but Lean does not rely on sensational drama, instead finding it in her detailed, well drawn characters and tightly structured plot. Lean brings Hero to a close with an especially wonderful ending that feels genuine and rare.

A Dog Called Homeless

Winner of the 2013 Schneider Family Award, established in 2004 to honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for a child and adolescent audiences. A Dog Called Homeless is the story of Cally, a fifth grader who, a year after her mother's death, has stopped speaking. When her family moves to a new apartment, Cally meets 11-year-old Sam who is deaf and blind. Through her friendship with Sam and the mysterious appearance of a dog, Cally finds her voice.

Source: Review Copy