On the Road to Respect

Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born with just one leg in rural Ghana, but he defied people’s low expectations by bicycling 400 miles across the country and thereby raised awareness for disabled people in Africa and around the world.

Emmanuel's Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson The engrossing picture book Emmanuel’s Dream opens with his birth: “Two bright eyes blinked in the light,/ two healthy lungs let out a powerful cry,/ two tiny fists opened and closed,/ but only one strong leg kicked.” With childlike, expressive mixed-media artwork, acclaimed illustrator Sean Qualls (Dizzy, 2006) reveals the precarious nature of the baby’s world: the father stoops in despair, while the concerned mother gazes at him, knowingly. Then we read how people in Ghana considered those with disabilities as worthless, or even as a curse.

The baby’s father abandons the family, but the mother, Comfort, graces her child with the name “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” She focuses on her son’s abilities rather than on his one shriveled leg. In time, the child learns to crawl, then hop, then climb coconut trees and fetch water. Mama Comfort carries him to school until he gets too heavy. After that, Emmanuel hops the two miles by himself.

Children will marvel at Emmanuel’s pluck and perseverance. When his classmates scorn him, Emmanuel decides to earn money to buy something special–a real soccer ball–and he earns their respect by playing with one leg and crutches. After his mother becomes too ill to sell vegetables at the market, Emmanuel moves to the big city of Accra to earn money to support his family. Two years later, he returns home, where his mother tells him from her deathbed, “Be respectful, take care of your family, don’t ever beg. And don’t give up.”

With his sharp mind and bold heart, Emmanuel concocts an unusual plan to honor her memory. He would show Ghanians he could accomplish a seemingly impossible feat: ride a bike nearly 400 miles across the nation. We see Emmanuel, his right leg tied to the bike frame and his left foot on the pedal, riding “up, down, across, and around his country, proudly wearing the colors of its flag on a shirt printed with the words THE POZO, or ‘the disabled person’.” And as he bikes, he attracts more and more attention. The children come to cheer; people with disabilities escape their stifling home to greet their hero.

In 10 days, Emmanuel proves his ability to accomplish his goal, but his journey continues. In the author’s note, Thompson points out that Emmanuel maintains a scholarship fund to help children with disabilities attend school, and he speaks to government officials and others about the need to pass laws protecting the rights of disabled citizens. Trust me; you’ll be glowing along with your audience as you share this inspiring, true story with children ages 6 to 9.

See also …

Helen's Big World The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport

Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford and illus by Sean Qualls

Case for Loving The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and ill by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko



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.

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.


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.

From Scraps to Treasure

Summertime, and creativity is easy. Are you and your children looking for inspiration for art projects? Just dip into acclaimed author/illustrator Lois Ehlert’s latest, The Scraps Book: Notes fromScraps Book Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert a Colorful Life, and you might not even finish the book until you’ll be itching to go for a nature walk to scavenge materials for little masterpieces.

Known for her bright collages, Ehlert has written and, of course, illustrated a brief, lively memoir that touches upon her early influences, her artistic process, and her many children’s books. She shows photographs of herself and her parents, whom she credits as being people “who made things with their hands.” She includes images of old scissors, paintbrushes, pumpkin seeds and crab apples, even the folding table her dad set up for her as a child and which she took with her to art school years later. We get to feast on colorful images from her popular titles such as Planting a Rainbow, Nuts to You! and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. In the process of revealing all this, she provides engaging and accessible ideas for young artists’ own work: a paper aquarium … a cat mask … a flower necklace.

Because of Ehlert’s vivid illustrations and her exuberant focus on the creative process, The Scraps Book promises to appeal to a wide range of children, from 5 to 10. I join the artist in wishing you a colorful life.

Ehlert’s other picture books are aimed at ages 5 to 8; recommended titles include …

Waiting for Wings by Lois EhlertPie in the Sky by Lois EhlertCuckoo Cucu A Mexican Folktale retold and illus by Lois Ehlert




Planting Seeds of Peace

After celebrating two strong fictional females in recent posts, I’d like to focus on a visually striking biography by Jen Cullerton Johnson today. Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace  quivers with sensual details and a sense of hope and respect for all living things. We see young Wangari Maathai and her mother eating sweet figs, just as the monkeys and an eleSeedsofChangephant are doing. The Kikuyu people of Kenya, we learn, believe their ancestors rest in the tree’s shade, so Wangari promises never to cut down the tree.

While few girls in her village learn to read, Wangari’s parents respond to their daughter’s desire to learn, and arrange for her to go to the local school. At age 11, however, she can advance no more. To continue, she must move to the big city of Nairobi. From there, she goes the U.S. to major in biology.

When Wangari returns to her beloved home, she finds a world out of balance. Because the government has sold much land to big foreign companies, the forest habitat has dwindled, and native cedar and acacia trees have vanished. The people of her village have abandoned their custom of not cutting down the mugumo (spreading fig trees). Erosion has caused soil to stream into the rivers. Crops are drying out, and people are hungry. Wangari’s seed of an idea will bring the community together and restore the ecology of the land. Lush oil and scratchboard illustrations by Sonia Lynn Sadler show the belts of green saplings planted by the women.

After being arrested by corrupt police officers, Wangari gets out and takes her case to the world. The woman called Mama Miti, mother of trees, helped get 30 million trees planted, making for cleaner rivers, abundant fruit, and healthy crops. She won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African to do so. Seeds of Change, aimed at upper-elementary students, is a vibrant story to include in units on ecology, peacemakers, Kenya, or outstanding women. A brief biographical note and sources are included.

And don’t miss the fabulous 2014 KidLit celebration of Women’s History Month!

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