Then Came the School

Nine-year-old Booker T. Washington was no longer a slave, but he didn’t feel free. Instead of learning the tools of freedom, Booker spent his hours toiling in a salt mine so he and his family could survive.

With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade With Books and Bricks How Booker T Washington Built a School by Suzanne Sladetells the inspiring story of how Washington managed to found what is now known as Tuskegee University.  We learn that Booker not only taught himself to read, but went on to walk and hitch rides 500 miles away to Virginia, where, at the age of 16, he could finally attend school. After graduating, he found a job teaching in the small town of Tuskegee, Alabama.

He encountered lots of eager students ready to learn — but no school. He procured an old shed, but the roof was so leaky that when it rained, “students took turns holding an umbrella over Booker so he could keep teaching.”

As more students came, the shack became more and more crowded. Booker knew they needed a real school, and it seemed obvious that the only way to get it was to build it themselves.

After borrowing money to buy an abandoned farm, Booker went to work clearing land. But where could he get the bricks necessary for the walls? Again, Booker relied on his own strength and knowledge. He studied how to mold and bake bricks and learned how to lay them. He and his students then took on the back-breaking work of digging for the clay they needed to make bricks. Nicole Tadgell’s lively pencil and watercolor illustrations help readers realize how grueling the task would have been. She shows the young people chopping down huge trees, digging muddy pits, holding red clay in blistered hands, and then lining up their many bricks.

They made 25,000 of them — only to have the kiln Booker had built explode and ruin them. Booker built another, and the same thing happened.

But Booker would not stop. He took his only precious possession, a gold watch, and sold it to pay for a kiln. This one did the job, and they built the walls and installed the front door and nailed on a waterproof roof.

More students kept coming, though, so they continued building– a dining hall, a chapel, a dorm where students could live. Those students went on to become the next generation’s teachers and leaders. I think most of us would agree with Washington’s observation, which closes the story: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

The author complements her well-paced narrative with an afterword containing more information on Washington, as well as a bibliography and source notes for the quotes she used.

While others have written picture books on Washington, I recommend using this one for ages 6 to 9, as Slade’s focus on the challenge of building a school creates enough drama to keep children interested and engaged.

See also …

my previous posts on Black History Month, featuring Martin & Mahalia Made Their Mark and the award-winning Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell


Voice of a Century

Thanks to the latest picture book by acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, you can bring in the sublime opera singer Leontyne Price to celebrate Black History Month. With poetic prose and vibrant illustrations, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century delivers a lyrical, uplifting story Leontyne Price Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherfordchildren should hear, whatever the time of year.

With elegantly crafted poetic prose, Weatherford places the singer’s story in the context of the oppressive world in which she was born, in 1927. “All a black girl from the Cotton Belt could expect was a heap of hard work–as a maid, mill worker, or sharecropper. Her song, most surely the blues.”

Despite the miseries of rural Mississippi, Leontyne thrived, growing up with a loving family that encouraged her interest in music. One of the highlights of Raul Colon’s illustrations for me is the full-page portrait done in Prismacolor pencils of a dreamy young Leontyne, eyes closed as she revels in the Saturday-afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Leontyne’s parents sold their treasured phonograph to pay for a piano and lessons for their daughter.

The girl’s world expanded even more when, as a church choir member, she got to see the famous Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Soon, Leontyne was off, too, heading for college in Ohio, where she could become qualified to teach music, “the concert stage out of reach for a black singer then.”

Here, another of my favorite illustrations shows Leontyne with her white gloves and her be-ribboned hat, waiting to catch the bus to take her far from home. The double-spread, done in Colon’s characteristic swirls, evokes the energy and hope it must have taken to propel Leontyne toward a richer life.

Then Leontyne learned she, too, could hope to sing on stage; the college president heard her sing a solo and convinced her to focus on developing her voice. And so she made her way to Juilliard and found her true calling.

This daughter of a sawmill worker and a midwife became the first black opera singer to garner leading roles at the Met and at Italy’s famous opera house La Scala. She was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the U.S., as Weatherford relates in her concluding author’s note. Can you imagine how inspiring it must have been for so many to sit in their living rooms and watch the regal singer perform?

Pair this engaging story with one of Price’s recordings — or, better yet, use a YouTube video showing her astounding 1963 televised performance of “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida. Then teach children this simple Italian word: Bravissima!

See also …

my previous post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu.

2015 Children’s Book Awards Announced

Lovers of children’s literature, the wait is over. Yesterday the American Library Association announced the 2015 prize winners for the top books, audiobooks, and videos for children and young adults. They include the following:

John Newbery Medal
for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is the 2015 Newbery Medal winner, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Two Newbery Honor Books:

El Deafo by Cece Bell, published by Amulet Books.

Brown Girl Dreaming written by Jacqueline Woodson and published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Randolph Caldecott Medal

for the most distinguished illustrations in an American picture book for children:Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, illustrated by Dan Santat and written by Dan Santat, is the 2015 Caldecott Medal winner. The book was  published by Little, Brown.

Six Caldecott Honor Books named:

1. Nana in the City, illustrated and written by Lauren Castillo, published by Clarion Books.

2. The Noisy Paint Box: The  Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, illustrated by Mary GrandPre, written by Barb Rosenstock and published by Alfred A. Knopf.

3. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett and published by Candlewick Press.

4. Viva Frida, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press.

5. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant, published by Eerdmans Books. (As you know, I second that emotion!)

6. This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Mariko Tamaki, published by First Second.

Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award

recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults:

Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming, has won the King Author Award. The book is published by Nancy Paulsen Books.  Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Honor Awards to go …

1. Kwame Alexander for The Crossover, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

2. Marilyn Nelson for How I Discovered Poetry, illustrated by Hadley Hooper and published by Dial Books.

3. Kekla Magoon for How It Went Down, published by Henry Holt.

Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award:

Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers, is the King Illustrator Book winner. The book was written by Misty Copeland and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Two King Illustrator Honor Books were selected:

Christian Robinson for Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, by Patricia Hruby Powell, published by Chronicle Books.

Frank Morrison for Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown, published by Lee and Low Books.

Pura Belpre Award

honoring a Latino writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray the Latino cultural experience:
The Pura Belpre Illustrator Award goes to Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press.

The Pura Belpre Author Award goes to

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, written by Marjorie Agosin, illustrated by Lee White and published by Atheneum Books.

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
for most distinguished informational book for children:

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant, is the Sibert Award winner. The book is published by Eerdmans Books.

Five Sibert Honor Books were named:

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming, and published by Schwartz & Wade Books.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson and published by Chronicle Books.

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, written and illustrated by Katherine Roy, and published by David Macaulay Studio.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh and published by Abrams Books.

Perhaps you, too, will add some of these beauties to your pile(s) of must-read books. You can read the ALA’s press release at

Roget’s Feast of Words

“Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order.” Right Word Roget and his Thesaurus by Jen Bryant

Who would have thought the story of Peter Mark Roget’s life could make for such an exciting (or … soul-stirring, sensational, provocative) story? Jen Bryant has accomplished a stellar feat with The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, surely in the running for the 2015 Caldecott Medal due to Melissa Sweet’s spectacular illustrations.

Many a child will be fascinated with The Right Word from the very beginning, as even the end papers display a vivid collage of vintage maps, diagrams, images of plants and animals, text excerpts, and the leather spines of old science books. Then there’s the playful title page, constructed of myriad alphabet blocks, interspersed with multicolored rectangular blocks and small, pleasing paintings of the natural world.

Bryant goes on to reveal the principal events of Roget’s life, focusing on his deliciously child-appealing craving for particularity. Sweet paints an engaging scene of the child sitting on a bright rug, surrounded by his drawings, books, and blocks. We learn how he compiled lists of Latin words, lists of favorite words relating to the weather, to the four elements, to the garden.

As he wandered the streets and parks of London, he reveled in words, their supple variety and their multitude of meanings: “If only all the ideas in the world could be found in one place, then everyone would have one book where they could find the best word, the one that really fit. Peter carried this idea with him like a secret treasure.” Appropriately, when his book of lists was published in 1852, it was called Roget’s Thesaurus, a word that means “treasure house” in Greek.

Educators who want to inspire children to enrich their writing by using a thesaurus, whether in print or online format, can do no better than to introduce the practice with this picture book. While adults can use it either one-on-one or with a group of younger ones (ages 8 and older), teachers should seize this title to enliven even middle-school classes. After spending time with The Right Word, readers of any age might be led to look at the thesaurus with a fresh sense of wonder and appreciation.

See also …

my previous post on Firefly July and the award-winning biography A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, also written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.


What’s the Big Idea?

Little ones are good at asking big questions. How good, though, are we adults at answering such inquiries as …. How big is Earth? … How old is our planet? … When did people first appear? Educator David J. Smith, whose fascinating books include the acclaimed If the World Were a Village (2011, rev. ed.), has again demonstrated how to help children grapple with the immensity of our world. As he writes in the prologue to If … A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at BigIf ... A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers by David J. Smith Ideas and NumbersSmith proposes to scale down or to “shrink … huge events, spaces and times to something we can understand.”

He begins with the galaxy: “If the Milky Way galaxy were shrunk to the size of a dinner plate … our whole Solar System–the Sun and the planets–would be far smaller than this speck of dust (an arrow points to a yellow dot on a white plate) … .” Smith then explains that the Hubble Space Telescope can see about 3,000 galaxies, which would amount to a stack of 3,000 dinner plates about 375 feet tall, or roughly the height of a 38-story building. And that’s not all: the universe might have more than 170 billion galaxies, which, continuing with this dinner-plate analogy, would give us a stack about 4,175,000 miles high, 17 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. Opposite his full-page image of the plate, illustrator Steve Adams shows a boy gazing at a tall stack of dishes that go beyond the Moon.

This deft combination of a precise, simple analogy + a bright full or double-page illustration + relevant fascinating facts will inform and delight many a curious child. Adults should appreciate the logical order of questions, as Smith begins with the most immense phenomena and moves on to more narrow ones. His comparison of planets to various types of balls would be a great, memorable way to get kids to comprehend their relative size. Smith taps the image of a yard to represent the history of Earth, while using an hour to reveal how different forms of life have evolved on Earth. Historic events, inventions, continents, water use, and species of living things are addressed, as well as money, energy, life expectancy, population, and food.  With the image of a pile of 100 coins, Smith provides a vivid picture of worldwide income inequality, as the richest 1 percent would have 40 of the coins, while the poorest 50 percent would share just one coin.

Can you imagine how much more our children would know and understand about the world if every classroom implemented Smith’s techniques? In addition to his stellar books, Smith has developed an impressive geography curriculum for grades 5+, called Mapping the World by Heart. A great complement to this or to other social-studies curricula would be the fabulous nonfiction books  published by Kids Can, which excel at depicting such issues as water conservation, biodiversity, food security, microlending, citizenship, and global awareness.Kids Can provides resources for discussing food security

On the Way to Empathy

How to spot beauty in all its motley habitats is the rare insight offered by a wise, patient grandmother in Matt de la Peña’s life-affirming picture book Last Stop on Market Street. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
Young CJ and his grandmother leave their city church with its bright stained-glass windows to board a bus across town. As they travel, the child, feeling a bit irritable, peppers his grandmother with typically puerile complaints.
The boy objects to the rain, then to the lack of a family car, and even to this Sunday excursion with his grandmother. Yet each time he perceives something negative, Nana calls his attention to the positive aspects he’s overlooked. Rain? “Trees get thirsty, too,” she points out. And instead of a car, the two of them get to ride in “a bus that breathes fire,” with a driver who shares magic tricks.
The trip itself takes on deeper meaning, especially as portrayed by Christian Robinson’s bright, naïf images created with acrylics, collage, and digital enhancements. Along with CJ, readers will encounter an intriguing array of riders, ranging from a peach-colored guitarist, a gray-haired woman holding a jar filled with butterflies, the smiling caramel-toned conductor, the pale bald-headed fellow with green tatooes, and the sad-eyed businessman.
CJ has not lost his tetchiness yet, though. When a blind man boards the bus with his dog, the boy asks, “How come that man can’t see?”. The grandmother’s simple response is rich with symbolic beauty: “Boy, what do you know about seeing?”
Tellingly, the grandmother is not the only one with valuable insight to share with the child. The blind man and then the guitarist inspire the child to experience the world with sensitivity and exuberance.
As CJ and Nana reach their destination, readers finally discover it’s a soup kitchen. We have accompanied this pair from one side of town to the other, traversing different socioeconomic neighborhoods and arriving at a fuller appreciation of both humanity’s needs and its wondrous diversity. It’s been a magical journey.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Nana in the City by Lauren CastilloMadlenka by Peter SisCastle on Viola Street by DiSalvo

The children come unto us

The stirring stories of two courageous children from Pakistan arise from the colorful pages of Jeanette Winter’s latest picture-book biography. Malala a Brave Girl from Pakistan Iqbal a Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter
Known for her award-winning children’s books featuring activists working for peace and justice, Winter (Nasreen’s Secret School, 2009), turns her clear eye to the valiant efforts of two who spoke out against a society that deprived young people of their right to an education (Malala Yousafzai) or the right to protection from exploitation (Iqbal Masih). Since the children faced violent consequences – Malala was shot, while Iqbal was murdered – the author/illustrator took an unusual risk with this book intended for a young audience.
As with her other works, Winter offers spare text, simple illustrations, and a hopeful tone. For Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan, she adds a pleasingly creative format: The reader can choose one story and then flip the book over to read the other. She introduces each child with a one-page note providing the essential context for his or her story, and follows that with the same quote from Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali writer and educator who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913: “Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them.”
Malala’s account will be more familiar to readers. Despite the Taliban’s efforts to prevent girls from attending school, Malala and her classmates rebel and keep going. To reduce their risks, the girls begin to travel to and from school in a van, but even then they are not safe. One day, a Taliban fighter stops the van and asks, “Who is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.” In the author’s note, we learn the bullet went through Malala’s head and neck to her shoulder.
After the van takes her to the local hospital, she is transferred to other sites, where doctors succeed in saving her life. On her 16th birthday, Malala, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, tells an audience of world leaders: “They thought that bullets would silence us, but they failed …. One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.”
Between the two stories lies a center spread showing each child on opposite sides, with a kite, symbolic of freedom, soaring toward the other. With eloquent symmetry, Malala, dressed in her pink and coral shalwar kameez, stands on a gray mountain peak and holds onto her kite, while Iqbal, depicted in a ghostly shade of gray, stands on a pink and coral peak and releases his kite. In the background, a golden crescent moon and rounded stars shine in a dusky purple sky.
Iqbal, we learn, loses his freedom at the age of 4, when his destitute parents borrow $12 from a carpet factory owner. The gruff owner tells the bewildered boy, shown holding a coral and purple kite, “No kites here!” and then drags him inside the dark factory and chains the child to a loom.
Trudging home one night, 10-year-old Iqbal sees a notice announcing a meeting about Peshgi, the loans that hold children in bondage. There, he learns that Peshgi has been outlawed and all loans forgiven. He rushes to the factory and shouts, “You are free! We are free!”
Not only does Iqbal head to school, he keeps spreading the news of freedom to other bonded children. Two years later, a bullet ends the brave boy’s life.
Showing an astute awareness that the story of Iqbal’s brief life might well have dismayed young readers, Ms. Winter has wisely paired it with the more uplifting one of Malala. In doing so, she provides adults with an exceptional opportunity to discuss with children the value of following one’s conscience and the need to stand up for justice, freedom and equality.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books.

And see my prior posts on Winter’s other well-crafted books, such as Kali’s Song and Henri’s Scissors.

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