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.

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Book Reviews: Two Books for Young Activists

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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

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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!

Two Books About Interracial Families

The Case for Loving
Written by Selina Alko • Illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

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Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a biracial Black and Cherokee woman, fell in love and wanted to get married. However, in 1958, interracial marriages were against the law in their home state of Virginia. This is the story of their marriage, arrest, and Supreme Court fight for the right to love.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It takes a complex and nuanced story and simplifies it without losing deeper themes and emotions. Historical precedent, social tension and ideas of injustice, fear, racism, and equality are woven under an overarching theme of love in a way that is accessible to younger readers.
  2. The illustrations are the creations of Alko and Qualls, an interracial, married couple. In their first collaborative project, they used both paint and collage to blend their styles together. The artwork and artists – both introspective and bold – beautifully symbolizes the story they tell.img_7494
  3. On one hand, it is a powerful historical lesson about the people who fought against injustice and paved the way for many to marry those they love. It also bears a striking resemblance to more recent issues of marriage equality for same-sex couples. On the other hand, it is simply one family’s real and personal story of love. In 1966, Richard told Life magazine: “We are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”
  4. Their last name was Loving. It doesn’t get more perfect than that!
  5. On a personal note, this book is a reminder of those that fought for justice that I might enjoy the freedoms and family I have today. Though we still have much work to do for racial equity and justice in this country, it is a reminder that we have also come a long way. Change can and does happen.

One Wish: There is a sentence says, “Richard Loving was a good, caring man; he didn’t see differences.” This line implies Richard Loving didn’t see race. The juxtaposition of colorblind language next to the descriptor, “good, caring man” seems to suggest that good, caring men don’t see race. In a book about race, the suggestion that race doesn’t matter is implausible and harmful. While the rest of the book discusses the issue clearly, this sentence misses an opportunity to discuss the reality of noticing race and the choice to either celebrate or discriminate as a result.

One Family
Written by George Shannon • Illustrated by Blanca Gomez

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A counting book that celebrates families of all types. This book shows there are many different ways to be “one.”

Reasons I love it:

  1. Simple text and adorable illustrations celebrate diversity in families. The illustrations show small families and large families, single-parent families, interfaith families, gay parents, interracial parents with biracial children, and people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  2. The illustrations are ambiguous, leaving interpretation of each character’s gender, faith, race and family role up to the reader. They provide a fascinating discussion starter. The ambiguity allows readers to draw their own conclusions; they may see themselves reflected in the text, see friends’ families reflected, or come up with other creative interpretations!img_7496
  3. It is a concept book about counting that goes beyond a standard 1-2-3 numbers book. The words and illustrations invite readers to examine each page more deeply.
  4. In line with the counting concept, the message of family diversity centers around the number “one.” In an abstract, yet easily understood manner, the book celebrates diverse families without smashing the message over readers’ heads.

One Wish: Characters that I interpret to be Asian are drawn with little slanted-line slits for eyes. Like, can we get over this slanty, slit-eyed portrayal of Asian people already? Everyone else in the book has dots for eyes; can the Asian people get dots too? Or can illustrators figure out a way to draw Asian eyes without being so stereotypical? That is all.

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

Two Rhyming Mighty Girl Books

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Ada Twist, Scientist
Written by Andrea Beaty • Illustrated by David Roberts

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Ada Twist, a young girl with insatiable curiosity, embarks on fact-finding missions and conducts elaborate scientific experiments to find answers to the questions that fill her head. When her experiments to discover the source of a mysterious stink go too far, her exasperated parents banish her to the Thinking Chair. Will Ada’s budding science career be cut off just as it begins?

Reasons I love it:

  1. Ada Marie Twist (named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie) is a young Black girl with a gift for science. She asks questions that lead to more questions and she is determined to find answers. She is unafraid of failure, passionate and persistent. Her curiosity and daring experimentation are infectious to her classmates, family and audience!
  2. Ada’s family contradict some negative stereotypes about Black families. Her parents and older brother support her growth, participate in her experiments, and nurture her passion.
  3. It is the perfect starting point for learning about the scientific method and scientific inquiry. This book could be used from elementary school up to high school to hook students into science. It is a celebration of STEAM.
  4. Upbeat rhyming text. The rhythms make for a fun read aloud.
  5. Beautiful, detailed illustrations. I particularly love the mother’s fashion. I’d wear those dresses if I could!

One Wish: I wish more books about children of color were written by authors of color. This is more of a comment on the industry and not one specifically targeted at Ada Twist, Scientist.

Interstellar Cinderella
Written by Deborah Underwood • Illustrated by Meg Hunt

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In a girl-power retelling of a well-known fairy tale, our heroine is a mechanic who loves fixing space ships. When Cinderella is abandoned at home, Murgatroyd the mouse and Cinderella’s fairy god-robot must get her to the Royal Space Parade. On the way, Cinderella sees the prince’s ship in smoke and she must zipzap with her socket wrench and swoop in for the rescue!

Reasons I love it:

  1. It is a fairy-tale retelling that empowers girls. Cinderella is a problem-solving girl with an aptitude for fixing things. She is more interested in pursuing her passion than marrying the prince. The book subtly, but clearly, shows readers that girls can and should dream past the boundaries outlined for them by tradition.
  2. The prince is a man of color; he is desirable, he has power, and he is kind. It is rare to find “good” characters of color in fairy-tales, if at all. I appreciate the interracial friendship illustrated in the story.img_7434
  3. The illustrations are eye-catching and colorful. The style is unique and bold with details to discover with every read.
  4. Fun rhymes that introduce creative vocabulary make this another fun read aloud.

One Wish: A few leaps in the story feel like we skip forward and miss connecting details. While the illustrations fill in some gaps, there are a couple places where the reader must fill in the holes themselves.

Happy reading!