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



Making Music a Little Easier

Yes, the hills might be alive with the sound of music, but how do you teach the elements of music to small children? Teacher/author Leah Wells chooses to use the power of story to do that job in a whimsical, sure-footed manner. Song for the Birds by Leah Wells and illus by Naomi Rosenblatt

In A Song for the Birds, the first of her new picture-book series, she begins with the most basic question: What is melody? To illustrate the idea that a melody is an arrangement of notes, she has created a simple, memorable story featuring birds and a bird-watcher. Each bird sings a particular note on the treble clef: the albatross sings A, the bluebird sings B, the canary sings her C, etc. An attentive bird-watcher listens to the birds but longs for a song instead of individual notes.

When he requests they sing a song, however, the “birds look at each other with confusion.” The bright watercolor images of Naomi Rosenblatt, the author’s sister, add humor and interest to the simple plot, as she skillfully evokes the birds’ various emotions and personalities. They comprehend what the bird-watcher wants after they listen to the mockingbird’s pleasing arrangement of notes.

They provide a brief concert outside the bird-watcher’s window on a starry night. With musical notation included, this final page presents the perfect moment for families and preschool groups to burst into “Twinkle, Twinkle …” And if there’s a piano nearby, why not accompany young singers?

Rainbow Remembers the Music by Leah Wells and illus by Naomi RosenblattIn the just-released second book, The Rainbow Remembers the Music, the author and illustrator show how we can remember music by using notes on a staff. Ms. Wells introduces the treble clef as well as the bass clef and accidentals. Here, the story employs the bird-watcher again, but this time with his two grandchildren as they witness birds singing as a rainbow appears. When the rainbow disappears, how can the birds recall which notes to sing? As the granddaughter begins to draw the lines of a rainbow in the mud, she places pebbles on her rainbow to show the notes of their song. A snail makes its way over and curls into the shape of a treble clef.

Grandpa, however, can only sing lower notes, so his grandson draws another “rainbow” and places two pebbles on it. After Grandpa kicks over the bucket of worms, one crawls over the that second rainbow and settles itself beside the two pebbles. At home the children decide to put the notes on paper, and so can readers, as The Rainbow Remembers the Music provides specially sized paper at the end of the story.

Music teachers and music-loving parents will want to seek out this fresh new child-friendly paperback series, available on Amazon. Please write back if you’d like to share your experiences using these pleasant little books.

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

Sidman’s Fresh Winter Poems

Winter’s splendors shine in the latest collaboration between award-winning children’s poet Joyce Sidman and illustrator Rick Allen, whose stellar prints graced the author’s Newbery Honor-winning poetry collection Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (2010).Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman
As with their previous work, Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold hums with a glorious trio of lyrical poetry, vibrant artwork, and natural science explained in crisp prose. The dozen brief poems show off a range of voices, tones, and formats in a full-throated effort to move readers to appreciate how the natural world adapts to the cold.
Employing a clear, consistent format of vivid double-page spreads showcasing the poem on the left and scientific information on the right, the poet and illustrator work harmoniously to stunning effect. Opening with the graceful “Dream of the Tundra Swan,” the team then moves on to feature coiled snakes, a new snowflake that “leaps, laughing/ in a dizzy cloud,/a pinwheel gathering glitter,” a rascally moose, winter bees, and others.
Ms. Sidman performs a sprightly dance with each of her subjects, dipping into rich sensory details with élan and displaying her facility with rhyme, rhythm, and poetic devices. She writes some poems from the perspective of a particular animal (“Brother Raven, Sister Wolf”) and throughout, shows a remarkable talent in her choice of poetic form. For “Under Ice,” Ms. Sidman writes of beavers in the form of a pantoum, distinguished by a pattern of using the poem’s second and fourth lines as the first and third of the next stanza. The last stanza employs the first and third lines in reverse order; thus, the poem’s final line is the same as the first. In this way the poet comes full circle, opening and closing with the image of the beavers’ snug winter home, “the fat white wigwam.”
These fresh poems spring to life with Mr. Allen’s original linoleum block prints, hand-colored and digitally scanned, composed and layered. The snowy images on these pages quiver with movement and assorted perspectives. As readers note the tundra swan’s upcoming “yodel of flight,/the sun’s pale wafer,/the crisp drink of clouds,” they can trace the V formations the vigorous swans make as they soar above a frosty lake. On subsequent pages, we see a chickadee preening, springtails flipping, a wolf prowling, and a ravenous moose reaching for a slender tree branch. The artist’s pleasing range of perspectives— from the upward view of tall trees and frigid sky to the downward gaze at a small fox coiled for warmth– can’t help but engage the reader. The illustrator offers fascinating glimpses of such internal worlds as the beavers’ cramped rooms beneath an icy pond and the winter bees clustered around their queen.
Winter Bees will make for a lovely companion on a chilly night, accompanied by hot cocoa and snuggles with young ones. Even middle-schoolers won’t be able to resist this bright concoction of art, words, and science. The glossary at the end serves to clear up any confusion about scientific terms and poem forms related to the text.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Story of Snow The Science of Winter's Wonder by Mark Cassino with Jon NelsonEye to Eye How Animals See the World by Steve JenkinsOver and Under the Snow by Kate Messner

Ashley Bryan’s Joyous Handiwork

In yet another celebration of creativity, acclaimed author/illustrator Ashley Bryan shares with readers his “family of hand puppets,” crafted with far-flung detritus. Peach pits become eyes … a coconut morphs into a head … a wishbone evokes whiskers. Oh, the random scraps that unfurl a panorama of puppets fit for the wildest tales!Ashley Bryan's Puppets

Ashley Bryan’s Puppets is not a craft book; rather, it’s an unusual poetry collection utilizing vibrant photos and a simple poem Bryan wrote for each of the 33 puppets showcased here. Clearly an act of love and joy, Bryan has bestowed every puppet with personality and a relevant name. Lubangi, meaning born in water, is a mermaid draped in netting studded with starfish and cockle shells. Jojo, the storyteller, has a head and hands made of gloves: “In every finger of my glove/ I tap tall tales of peace and love./ The fingers of my well-gloved hands/ Store stories told in foreign lands.”

In his note, the author/creator relates that as he walks the shores of his longtime home in the Cranberry Isles of Maine, he collects shells, bone, driftwood, nets, and sea glass. What child wouldn’t relate to this impulse? While readers won’t find instructions or photos of the author’s creative process (alas), they will find plenty of inspiration for their own puppets. Parents and young ones can use this book as a source for ideas, while teachers and librarians might select a few poems and photos to share as part of a puppet-making project based on folktales — perhaps using one of Bryan’s own vivid versions.

And see my prior post on Ashley Bryan.


Revelling in Rescued Parrots

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L Roth and Cindy TrumboreParrots Over Puerto Rico, winner of the 2014 Robert F. Sibert Medal, plunges readers into verdant forests where bright blue Puerto Rican parrots fluttered in ancient canopies for eons. This nonfiction picture book deftly tells the intertwined stories of the island’s history and of the birds’ near-extinction and subsequent recovery.

Known for her colorful collages, Susan Roth proves herself up to the challenge of creating vibrant, personality-filled images of the raucous flocks that once thronged the island that came to be called Puerto Rico. Using a pleasing range of textured paper and fabric and employing a vertical (rather than horizontal) layout, Roth depicts the lush natural environment filled with sierra palm trees, tiny tree frogs and crops of corn, yucca, and sweet potatoes.

Co-written with Cindy Trumbore, the book reveals the evolution of the island’s peoples and environment. The Tainos, who arrived around 800 CE, gave the parrots the name iguaca, echoing their harsh calls. In time, the Spanish came, as well as slaves brought from Africa. Predators such as black rats, thrashers, and swarms of honeybees invaded and attacked the parrots. By 1967, many forests had disappeared, and only 24 parrots lived in Puerto Rico.

Only a concerted effort by scientists, environmentalists, public officials, and citizens could save and protect the parrots. Scientists — and parrots — had to battle hurricanes, thunderstorms, wrecked buildings and trees. Thanks to decades of dedicated work, the parrots are still flying over their native isle.

Because of its somewhat detailed and abundant text, Parrots Over Puerto Rico lends itself best to one-on-one sharing or to independent reading by young nature lovers ages 8 to 10.

For more fine nonfiction picture books, see …

Moonbird by Phillip HooseMangrove Tree by Susan L Roth and Cindy TrumboreIsland Story of the Galapagos by Jason Chin

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: