Book Reviews: Three Books About Native Kids


Thunder Boy Jr.
Written by Sherman Alexie • Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
(the most powerhouse team in the history of ever)

Thunder Boy Smith Jr, named after his father, Thunder Boy Smith Sr., loves his father dearly. People call his father Big Thunder, which “is a storm filling up the sky,” while he is called Little Thunder, which he believes sounds “like a burp or a fart.” Thunder Boy Jr loves his dad, but he has a secret. He hates his name! He wants his own name. He wants to be himself.

Reasons I love it:

  1. Little Thunder tries to solve his problem by brainstorming new names that reflect his personality and accomplishments. He has once touched a wild orca and wonders if “Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth” might be a better name. He loves going to garage sales with his mom, so possibly, “Old Toys Are Awesome” would work. The dog likes to chase Thunder Boy Jr.’s tail, so perhaps, “Can’t Run Fast While Laughing” is the way to go. His brainstorm is sweet and funny.
  2. It shows a modern-day Native American family, not the romanticized or caricatured historical version that gives children the idea that Native peoples exist only in ancient history.
  3. It illustrates the importance of remembering one’s heritage while also embracing one’s unique identity. It is an empowering tale that honors tradition while celebrating individuality. Alexie does this in in prose that is simultaneously thoughtful and hilariously funny.
  4. It is fundamentally about the powerful and loving relationship between a father and son. My husband complains that there aren’t enough books about fathers’ relationships with their kids. He loves this book.
  5. I am in love with Yuyi Morales’ illustrations! Not only are they a perfect fit for the story, but they also weave in an additional story layer that I didn’t notice until my fourth read through. Morales created the illustrations from the remains of the antique house in Mexico where she worked on the book. She selected old wood and clay bricks, scanned and used their colors and textures to digitally paint the illustrations. So cool! The bold colors add glowing energy to each page, while the grey-toned backgrounds give the tale depth and weight. Each illustration is filled with incredible detail while managing to look deceptively simple. Much like the story itself.

One Wish: No wishes for this one. I can’t imagine a more powerhouse team! I love this book!

Mama, Do You Love Me?
Written by Barbara Joosse • Illustrated by Barbara Lavallee

The tender story of a young Inuit girl testing her limits, even as her mother reassures her over and over again that a parent’s love is unconditional.

Reasons I love it:

  1. This story of unconditional parental love is set in Northern Alaska amongst the traditions, culture and lifestyle of an Inuit family. The combination of this universal theme and an underrepresented people enable readers to feel an immediate connection as they learn about (what is likely) a different culture.
  2. The lyrical writing is beautiful to read and easy for young children to follow.
  3. The story introduces readers to new animals and vocabulary words. Carter calls this the “mukluk book” or the “umiak book.” The hardcover edition includes an illustrated glossary of terms, traditions and symbolic meanings.
  4. The vibrant watercolor illustrations are stunning. They are well-researched and filled with deep symbolic meaning. They also depict elements of Inuit life not included in the text.

One Wish: The text and illustrations are beautiful. However, this book does cause me to question who has the right to tell a story? How would the story and illustrations be different if they had been created by Inuit artists?

The Unbreakable Code
Written by Sara Hoagland Hunter • Illustrated by Julia Miner

John, a young Navajo boy who is about to leave the reservation, finds comfort as his grandfather tells him the story of Navajo code talkers during World War II. His grandfather’s story begins as Navajo children were forced into government boarding schools and punished for speaking the Navajo language. However, the Navajo language becomes the unbreakable code that saves our nation during World War II.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It tells the story of a little-known piece of U.S. history in simple, yet captivating language. Though it is wordier than a typical picture book, and may be suited to slightly older children, the grandfather’s shares a story that every child should grow up learning.
  2. In child-friendly terms, the story reveals the historical legacy of hypocrisy and injustice toward Native peoples in the United States. As an introductory detail, forced boarding schools may be lost in the excitement of the heroic story, but is nevertheless a dark chapter in history with generational consequences. Punishment for speaking one’s native language is another detail that illustrates the dehumanizing treatment Native peoples endured. Even the example of the American soldier who heard the grandfather code talking and mistook him for a Japanese spy shows the perspective of Native peoples as foreigners in their own land. The government was happy to use them when the Japanese couldn’t break their language code, but as we can see today at Standing Rock, injustice continues.
  3. The story is filled with pride at the pivotal role Navajo code talkers played on the world stage.
  4. The painted illustrations are soft, subtle and gentle. They lend an air of humility and natural strength to the story.
  5. A glossary of original code and code highlights is included in the back.

Two Wishes: John’s introductory storyline doesn’t flow well with the rest of the story. The grandfather’s beautiful story is sandwiched between two slightly awkward and forced ends. Additionally, neither the author nor illustrator is Native; I wonder how many details and nuances are missed as a result, despite their copious research efforts.

Book Review: One for this Election

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead
Written by Michelle Markel • Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

An inspiring portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton from her childhood through her tenure as the United States Secretary of State. This biography showcases the Democratic Presidential Nominee’s barrier-breaking accomplishments and touches on many challenges she faced along the way.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It is boldly in favor of Hillary Clinton as a person, a woman, a politician and an advocate for change. It outlines her life through the lens of a woman challenging assumptions and pushing down barriers; she has always been a strong, passionate leader working to make a difference. In this regard, I find it to be incredibly inspiring.
  2. Gender is an ever-present theme throughout the book. Sentences like, “But she couldn’t believe how people criticized her – in ways they’d never criticize a man. They said her headbands were too casual and her attitude was too feisty. An ex-president said a First Lady shouldn’t be too strong or too smart. Others called her “the Hillary problem” – and a lot worse things than that” introduce ideas of gender bias in child-friendly language. Though the story does not dive beyond these general descriptions, it creates a platform for deeper discussion with young readers. If nothing else, this is definitely a book for mighty girls – and for boys who support mighty girls.
  3. I had the privilege of meeting the illustrator, LeUyen Pham, earlier this year at a writer’s conference. She is an amazing woman whose life and words have inspired me on my writing path. She embodies many of the themes of female empowerment and breaking barriers shared in this book. The illustrations in this book are simply amazing. Pham’s research shows in her artwork inclusion of significant people, memories and details throughout Clinton’s life. A four-page artist’s note is included with explanations of the symbolism, significance and history in each illustration. In addition depth and detail, the artwork is bright, cute and engaging.

One Wish: The first spread begins with, “In the 1950’s, it was a man’s world. Only boys could grow up to have powerful jobs. Only boys had no ceilings on their dreams.” The illustrations on these pages include two Black men. It is factually incorrect to imply that only women faced discrimination at a time Black men and women were in the midst of Jim Crow laws. I also didn’t love the line, “Her youth group met with poor black and Latino teenagers in the inner city.” As a book about gender, this book works to inspire young readers; however, its short inclusions of race are problematic.


Rejection Never Felt So Sweet

Writers, I’ve learned, need to be patient and persistent in the face of constant rejection. It seems every successful author has tales of rejection after rejection at every stage of the publishing process.

JK Rowling was rejected 12 times for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 27 times before being published. Agatha Christie endured five years of rejection before landing her first publishing deal. The list goes on and on.

At this year’s SCBWI conference, I was both shocked and encouraged when Clare Vanderpool, author of 2011’s Newbery Medal winning novel, Moon Over Manifest, showed us pages upon pages of crossed off names, written meticulously on yellow legal pad paper. They represented years of rejection from publishers and agents. Finally, on what seemed like the millionth page, there was a giant circle around one agent’s name. After being signed by an agent, she won the Newbery Medal.

I can only dream of the bestselling, award-winning big leagues. I’m definitely dreaming. For now, I’d be thrilled to find an agent and eventually land a book deal. Apparently, an author can expect to be rejected anywhere from 17-300 times before signing a publishing deal. And, due to the high volume of submissions received by agents and publishers, rejections can fall into three categories: no response, form rejection letter, personal rejection letter. Personal responses are rare. The process of waiting can take anywhere from one to six months.

I spent this past summer researching agents that might be a good match for me. I read every post on Query Shark and crafted my query letters. Finally, in August, I sent my first query letter to an agent. I sent out nine letters over the next month. I hoped to be signed, but would have been thrilled by at least one personal rejection.

My first response was a personal rejection.


It read (names removed):

Ms. Ho Bradshaw,

Thank you for your query. __________and I both read your submission and we really enjoyed __________; the rhythms, repetition, language, and images are very strong. Those last two lines are happy and heartbreaking and beautiful! Unfortunately, and I hate telling authors things like this, but this book, especially as a debut (if you’ve published before please correct me) would be a really hard sell. This story is important and deserves to be told, but judging from our experience editors will pass because the general audience of American children won’t be able to relate to this event, which you yourself admit has been forgotten by many. It’s a beautiful story but it’s not the most engaging unless you have a personal connection. Additionally, it’s very sad and solemn though it has a happy ending. I hate to be the bearer of that bad news because our agency is constantly looking for diversity and originality, so I apologize for the mixed messages. Though we feel we should pass on this piece, please feel free to submit to us again in the future. _______ and I would both be interested in seeing what other stories you have up your sleeve because we enjoyed your writing. And I do feel that after you’ve established yourself, ________ could and should be revisited.

Wishing you much success on your journey,

The supportive words of the rejection more than tempered my disappointment. They also alleviated Catch 22 sting of writing stories about marginalized communities in an industry struggling with diversity. The invitation to submit again was affirming and encouraging.

I received an email from another agent requesting more stories. Though she ultimately did not make an offer, she also expressed interest in seeing more of my work in the future. Again, affirmation and hope.

I received a few more form rejections and have not yet heard back from the others.

In an industry where I expected to send out 17-300 letters before receiving a personal response or interest, one personal rejection and one request for more material felt like a huge step in the right direction. These rejection letters affirmed my work and effort. They inspired me to work even harder to improve my craft. They prompted me to ask hard questions and have provided clarity around the stories I should tell. They gave me hope.

I’m grateful for my rejection letters. They feel like proof that I’m on the right path.


Book Reviews: Two Books for Young Activists


A is for Activist
Written and illustrated by Innosanto Nagara

An alphabet board book that introduces progressive ideas of activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant issues, education, protest, gender…you name it, it’s here.

Reasons I love it:

  1. Finally, a book that is unapologetic about introducing young children to complex issues of social justice and human rights! This book not only covers a wide variety of topics, it also promotes independent thought, critical thinking and ideas for creating change. I love that the book can grow with young readers. The ideas may be incomprehensible at first, but it provides a foundation of language, questioning and learning about some important issues of our time. It is never too early to start! The layers and issues are so deep that I can see this book used as a text to facilitate discussions in college classrooms.
  2. The pointed social critique is balanced by a playful rhythm used throughout the book. Alliteration and rhyme create a light-hearted tone that even the youngest infant will enjoy. My son loved this book as a baby, and he still consistently pulls it off the shelf as a toddler.
  3. Diversity is inherent on every page. Nagara’s illustrations include children of various races and ethnicities. Multiple languages are present in the text and artwork. Children are not drawn to be overly-gendered, and are often depicted countering gender norms. Youth in wheelchairs are included. It is clear that Nagara made a conscious effort to represent marginalized communities. Through these images, the book sends a positive message of empowerment and social engagement to all youth.
  4. The illustrations are bold, colorful and deeply symbolic. Faces of worldwide civil rights including Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Cesar Chávez and Malati Choudhury are embedded throughout the book. Nagara provides a “Who’s Who” guide on his Facebook page. Other illustrations – like the “O” page include modern-day symbolism: does the owl allude to the Occupy Movement? Does the bull represent Wall Street? What do they mean together? Again, this book could be used in upper level classrooms, but is still engaging to young readers.
  5. There are cats hidden on every page! Oh, and it’s an ABC book! In addition to all the deep stuff, this book teaches kids the alphabet!

Two Wishes: The letters of the alphabet are sometimes difficult to find – particularly if a reader is still learning them – and they alternate between capital and lower-case letters. As an alphabet book, I wish the letters were shown consistently and more visibly in the same case. In addition, there are a few passages in which the rhythm is difficult to maintain, which can make the reading choppy. It would be nice if the rhythms throughout the book were also consistent.


Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type
Written by Doreen Cronin • Illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. His problem only gets bigger, however, when the cows begin leaving notes with demands. Then they go on strike. Then, the chickens join them. This is a hilarious story of a typewriter, activist cows and the poor farmer who just wants the balance of power to stay the same as always! At least the duck is neutral….or is he?

Reasons I love it:

  1. It is freaking hysterical! Between the bizarre story line, unexpected twists, brilliant illustrations and notes from cows that read, “Sorry. We’re closed. No milk today.” this book makes me giggle every time I read it.
  2. It’s a book about literacy, peaceful protests, movements, and strikes. Through the entertaining story, this book will empower young readers to fight for their rights; it is an engaging, yet nuanced way to introduce these concepts to children. Sometimes when I read to my son at night, I just want to be entertained; this book covers my funny and educational bases in one go.
  3. Repetition and onomatopoeia make this a fun read aloud.
  4. The watercolor illustrations add more to the humor. The cartoonish style hilarious animal expressions pair perfectly with the outlandish text. This was a Caldecott Honor Book in 2001.

One Wish: No wishes for this one. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series! This is one of my all-time favorites!

Three Books Featuring Asian Kids

Juna’s Jar
Written by Jane Bahk • Illustrated by Felicia Hoshino

Juna and her best friend, Hector love to collect things to put in Juna’s empty kimchi jar. When Hector moves unexpectedly and is unable to say goodbye, Juna’s big brother tries to lift her spirits by filling the jar with different gifts. With the help of her special jar, Juna embarks on imaginative adventures as she searches for Hector. Juna realizes that new friends and adventures can be found in the most unexpected places!

Reasons I love it:

  1. The story weaves elements of fantasy into a real and relatable story about losing a best friend. Juna’s imaginative adventures give a magical feeling to a story about overcoming loss and finding friendship.
  2. Though the story provides authentic hints at Juna’s race and ethnicity – kimchi jars, names, Korean familial terms – the story is not about race or ethnicity; it centers on relationships and universal emotions and experiences. It is extremely challenging to find books featuring Asian children that aren’t culture-specific; though the intention may be to educate, one consequence is that it others Asian children. I love that this book ties in culture but focuses on universal childhood experiences.
  3. The watercolor illustrations add a dreamy, whimsical feeling to this imaginative story. I particularly appreciate that Juna’s eyes are drawn as real eyes and not slits (like too many other Asian characters! See my mini-rant in my review for One Family); she is adorable.
  4. Hector is from a Spanish-speaking family. Kudos for interracial friendships!

One Wish: I get the sense that the story contains layers of symbolism that I haven’t unpacked yet. I wish someone would tell me what it means when each item in the jar grows so quickly overnight!

Maxwell’s Mountain
Written by Shari Becker • Illustrated by Nicole Wong

When Maxwell spies the big mountain behind the park, he is determined to climb it. He must prove to his parents that he is prepared and he sets out to become a true outdoorsman. When he’s ready, he sets out to climb the mountain with his gear and trusty sidekick, a toy soldier named Harry, at his side. But, how will Maxwell get to the top when he loses his way on the hill?

Reasons I love it:

  1. Maxwell is a biracial boy who loves the outdoors and goes looking for big challenges. He sets goals and trains hard to become an expert outdoorsman: he reads books, works out, draws maps, packs gear and brings friends. He is overcomes his challenges with perseverance and determination.
  2. I got hooked on the first page with the sentences: “He looked to the left and saw a swing set – typical. To the right he saw a sandbox – predictable. Directly ahead, a seesaw – common.” Maxwell is always looking for adventure.
  3. Fine-lined, softly watercolored illustrations add inviting layers of detail with sweeping vistas. They make readers feel as if we are on the adventure with Maxwell.

One Wish: The voice on the first page that hooked me seemed to shift so something a little more generic and teachy through the rest of the story. Would have loved to see that initial lively voice with a little snark throughout the whole book.


The Ugly Vegetables
Written and illustrated by Grace Lin

In the spring, a young Chinese girl helps her mom start a garden and realizes their neighbors are planting gardens too. As their plants grow, she realizes that different sized shovels and signs with funny pictures aren’t the only things that make her mom’s garden different. While the neighbors grow gardens filled with beautiful flowers, her mother’s garden is filled with ugly Chinese vegetables. But, when it’s time to harvest and cook the vegetables, beautiful changes transform the neighborhood…and the little girl.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It speaks to my heart as someone who grew up self-conscious about my different-looking, different-smelling food. For some, this book may be a way to introduce and appreciate differences. For me, this book is an affirmation of my food and culture. The arc of embarrassment to appreciation to pride is a familiar one.
  2. The trusting relationship between the mother and daughter is heartwarming. The mother is unafraid to be different, yet allows her daughter the space to learn on her own.
  3. Sharing cultures, bonding communities, accepting differences are just some ideas shared in the story. It is a great book to use in classrooms to introduce these universal themes, or to discuss plants and gardening!
  4. There is a recipe for ugly vegetable soup included at the end!

One Wish: The ending in which (spoiler alert!) every family in the neighborhood loves the soup and ends up planting ugly vegetable gardens of their own is lovely, though not super realistic. In my experience, many people are afraid to try new, different-looking foods, no matter how delicious it smells. Nevertheless, I wish the world really worked the way the story does!

Let me know what you think if you pick up one of these books! Happy reading!