Friday, June 30, 2017

Poetry Friday with a review of I, too, sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry

Many of us take education for granted. It does not occur to us that being able to go to school and university is a privilege. Not that long ago, African Americans were not allowed to learn how to read and write, and even when the doors of schools were finally open to them, the education that they received was mediocre at best.

Luckily for us many African Americans found their voices in spite of racism, segregation, and inequality. They learned how to read and write, they went to school, they put up with all kinds of privations, and they created marvelous stories and poetry. Today's poetry title is a celebration of African American poetry, and the book is packed with poems that delight the ear and excite the mind.

I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American PoetryI, too, sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry
Catherine Clinton
Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Poetry
For ages 9 and up
Houghton Mifflin, 2017, 978-0544582569
The slaves who were brought to America were subjected to unspeakable cruelties. Deprived of their family members, their community, their history, their culture, and their language, they were cut off from everything that was familiar. After being sold, they (and many of their descendants) were denied the right to learn how to read and write, but countless creative African Americans found ways to bring glorious language into their lives through song. Then there were those who learned how to read and write in secret; others were lucky enough to be working for enlightened people who allowed them to become educated.  
   In this wonderful book, readers will encounter the stories and the writings of African American poets, beginning with those who were brought to the United States as slaves, and ending with poets who are creating poems for present day readers.
   The collection begins with the story of, and a poem written by, Lucy Terry. Lucy was born in Africa, sold into slavery, and then she went to live in a community in Massachusetts that was greatly affected by an Indian raid which took place on the twenty-fifth of August in 1746. Lucy wrote about the raid in her poem Bars Fight, in which she memorializes the people who died in the attack. The poem was passed down orally from person to person for generations until it was published in 1855.
   Phyllis Wheatley, who was born in the Gambia, was special in that she was greatly supported in her writing journey by the people who bought her. She learned to read and write English, and was only fourteen when her first verse was published. She went on to learn Latin, and a patron helped her find a London publisher for her collection of verse. Phyllis even made the journey across the Atlantic so that she could meet some of her admirers in England. Her poem Liberty and Peace captures her belief in “the principals that fuels the American Revolution and the antislavery movement…”
   We go on to meet George Moses Horton, who, unlike Phyllis, was denied an education and so he wrote his poems in his head. He shared his writings with students who were studying at the nearby University of North Carolina. George’s patrons wanted to buy his freedom but his master refused to allow this. George did find a way to learn how to write, and in all he wrote three volumes of poetry. In his poems George often openly spoke about the “agony of bondage and the desire for liberty” which we can see for ourselves when we read his poem On liberty and slavery. The poem is an appeal that is heartfelt and powerful.
   Other poets whose stories and poems appear in this collection include W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni.
   Readers of all ages will be captivated by this extraordinary collection. We get to know each poet a little by reading their biographies, and then get to experience their writing through their poems. It is interesting to see how the styles and subject matters in the poems changed as the years went by, and to see how the poems were influenced by what was happening in the world at the time when they were written.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Books of Hope: She persisted: 13 Women who changed the world

Sometimes, when our dreams seem hopelessly out of reach, the best thing to do is to listen to stories about people who have kept on trying, kept on dreaming. Hearing about their triumphs over adversity helps us to keep the faith.

Over the centuries many groups of people have found it particularly hard to pursue their dreams because people have stood in their way and have prevented them from moving forward towards their goals. One of these groups has been women, who have been told that they are lesser people because of their gender. Thankfully, some women refused to give in or give up. They persisted!

Today's Book of Hope offers us inspiring stories about women who would not accept the words of doubters and naysayers.

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the WorldShe persisted: 13 Women who changed the world
Chelsea Clinton
Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger
Nonfiction Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Penguin, 2017, 978-1-5247-4172-3
For centuries society has told women that they could not get an education, could not work outside the home, could not own property, could not drive a car, could not do the same jobs as men, could not vote. They have faced a wall of could nots and should nots. And yet they have persisted and did those things that mattered to them most, in spite of it all.
   In this book readers will meet thirteen women who refused to toe the line; who refused to accept that they were lesser people because they were born female. The first woman we meet is Harriet Tubman, who escaped from a life of slavery and who then chose to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Every time she helped someone escape to freedom Harriet risked her own freedom, and every person she assisted “arrived safely.”
   Nellie Bly was a reporter, and in part she took on the challenge of reporting the news because a male writer said that working women were “a monstrosity.” These words made Nellie want to prove that women could do anything that they wanted to. She set about exposing shocking stories to help others. For one story she pretended to be a patient in a mental hospital so that she could tell the world about the horrific way the patients were treated.
   Oprah Winfrey’s grandmother expected that her granddaughter would follow in her footsteps and become a maid. Being both female and African American meant that very few doors were open for Oprah to step through. Oprah refused to be locked into a life that she did not want, and through hard work and determination she became “a media superstar.”
   For each of the thirteen women featured in this book readers will read a little about their life, and they will find a quote that beautifully captures each woman’s fighting spirit. Throughout the book evocative pieces of artwork accompany the text to give readers an altogether memorable reading experience.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Picture Book Monday with a review of The mermaid's Purse

One of my favorite things in this world is a room full of wonderful books. My office has shelves from floor to ceiling on most of the walls for my work books, and one day soon (I hope) I will have a family library as well for all my non-work books. The books we have cover a wide range of topics. Of course there are novels in abundance, but there are also nonfiction titles about gardening, oriental rugs, Siamese cats, biographies, histories, and atlases. There are books about trees, birds and flowers, and titles about trains, wine, food, and so much more. My books make me feel rich and I love them.

Today's picture book title is about a girl's love of books, which she shares with the people around her. The interesting thing to see is how her love of books spreads as people learn to appreciate what books can do for them.


The Mermaid's PurseThe mermaid’s purse
Patricia Polacco
Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Penguin, 2016, 978-0-399-16692-1
In 1883, during a fierce storm, a baby girl was born just as a clap of thunder shook the air. The baby was still in the birth membrane when she came into the world, which many people considered to be a sign that the baby was blessed. The baby was named Estella and it soon became clear that she was indeed a blessed child. She walked and talked sooner than most children did, and she taught herself to read at a very young age.
   Estella’s love for the written word was a powerful thing. Every penny she earned she used to buy books. Often she traded paintings she created for books as well. Soon Estella’s book collection filled the upper floor of the farmhouse that she lived in. Her father thought he would soon have to “build you your own library for all these books!” and one day this is exactly what he did. With the help of friends, Estella’s father built his daughter a little building where she could house her book collection.
   Some of the men who helped build the library “scoffed” at Estella’s books, which troubled her a great deal. How could anyone not like books? Estella’s father explained that many of the men who had helped with the library project had probably never even read a book. Being a very determined young girl, Estella decided that she would take books to the neighboring farms, and so she loaded up some of her books into her goat cart and went from farm to farm. Though the local children seemed eager to enjoy her books and her storytelling times, the farmers simply did not accept that Estella’s books were relevant to them. Until she proved how wrong they were.
   This delightful and powerful tale is based on the true story of the author’s grandmother, Estella Barber, who built a library, shared her love of books with others, and taught hundreds of children. Readers will discover, through the story, how valuable book knowledge can be both in good times, and during emergencies.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Poetry Friday with a review of Animal Ark


I have been an animal lover all my life. When I was very young and living in a small Lebanese mountain village I used to feed the wild tortoises and hedgehogs. I spent hours lying on my belly so that I could watch ants going about their business, and knew where all the tadpole pools and beetle hideouts were. I begged my parents to get me a donkey (after all my friend had one) but they said no and broke my heart.

I still have not had a pet donkey, but a wonderful parade of creatures have been a part of my life. There have been dogs, cats, guinea pigs, Gracie the potbelly pig, Scout and Jemima the ducks, and Nelson, the grumpy one-eyed turtle.

Because I am such an animal mad person I was thrilled to get today's poetry book in the mail. In this book beautiful lines of verse are paired with photographs of wild creatures that could, if we are not careful, become extinct.

Animal Ark
Animal Ark: Celebrating our Wild World in Poetry and PicturesKwame Alexander
Photographs by Joel Sartore
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 5 to 8
National Geographic, 2017, 978-1-4263-2767-4
We share our planet with a dazzling, remarkable array of animals. The smallest little beetles with their iridescent wing cases; the striped tiger, that “grandfather of the hunt;” the elephant with its “giant stomping feet;” and the tiny beach mouse that goes “scurrying inside dunes” on little pattering feet. All are marvelous and precious, and all need to be saved.
   In this remarkable book the gorgeous and vibrant photos of Joel Sartore are paired with Kwame Alexander’s beautiful, lyrical haiku to create a powerful ode to the “chorus of creatures” that live on this planet of ours. The photos show us a bird that dances, a frog that leaps, and tortoises that steadfastly trundle along carrying their “homes of courage / on humble backs.” We see panda babies snuggled together, and a bird sleeping with his feathers fluffed. We gaze into the eyes of a slow loris, which are as “big as two sunsets.” There is the sweetness of a baby tapir, and the “tiny growls” of a clouded leopard cub.
   All these remarkable living creatures are part of our family, and we are connected to them in countless ways. With these connections come responsibilities. We must protect these “secret siblings” that are all too often adversely affected by our actions. We need to “listen to the earth” and take care of our precious family before it is too late.
   At the back of this beautiful and memorable book, readers will find notes from the photographer and the author, information about haiku, and a directory that gives us the names of the animals shown in the book and the places that they come from. Each one of these thirty-two species are in peril to a greater or lesser degree.
  


Monday, June 19, 2017

Picture Book Monday with a review of The Midsummer Tomte and the Little Rabbits

The summer solstice, midsummer, is only a few days away and in honor of this day I bring you this delightful picture book in which we meet a grumpy tomte. Tomtes are little gnome-like people who are often found living in human homes and on farms. If their human hosts give them a little kind consideration, the tomte will become attached to their people and take care of them in their own small way. The tomte in this story does not have a family anymore, until something happens that turns his life upside down.

The Midsummer Tomte and the Little RabbitsThe Midsummer Tomte and the Little Rabbits 
Ulf Stark
Illustrated by Eva Eriksson
Translated by Susan Beard
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Floris Books, 2016, 978-178250-244-9
Early summer has arrived and change is in the air. Grump the house tomte cleans the farm cottage, just as he does every year, even though the family has not lived there in a long time. He scrubs the floors, shakes out the linens, and polishes the gong in the hall. When he bangs the gong, memories of what the house was like when the family lived there wash over him, and he feels their loss.
   Grump’s mood does not improve when his friend the bee announces that it is time for him to leave. Grump tries to persuade the bee to stay but the bee is eager to be off and he flies away, leaving Grump all on his own. Grump feels that making friends with the bee in the first place was a mistake because it meant that he became attached to the little animal. He has been too friendly and not grumpy enough, he decides. Something has to change.
   Not far away the rabbit family members are busy doing chores and learning about plants. The rabbit children are reminded of the wonderful Christmas celebration that they shared with the tomte and they wish that they could have another festive gathering. Mother Rabbit explains that Christmas will not come around for many months, which is when Uncle Nubbin tells the little rabbits about Midsummer.
   Eager to find out what a Midsummer celebration is, the rabbits go to visit Owl. Owl tells them that Midsummer is a time for wearing hats, dancing, playing, and kissing. It is also “full of magic and love and mystery.”
   Then a summer storm hits and even the rabbits’ safe home under the big oak tree is flooded. Dozens of animals are homeless, drenched, and miserable, and there is no safe place for them to shelter. Then the younger rabbits suggest that they take refuge in Grump’s cottage, and off they go. Soon they are joined by Grump’s bee friend, who also needs a safe and dry place to rest. Grump, who does not want to form attachments, suddenly finds himself surrounded by friends.
   Midsummer is only a few days away and some of the animals think about celebrating. Then they discover that one of their own is dangerously sick. No one can think about having a party when Rory’s life hangs in a balance. Even Grump, who tries not to feel things, is sad and upset.
   This wonderful picture book takes readers into a delightful woodland world where the rabbits and their friends, and a grumpy house tomte, live. Divided into short chapters, the story takes us into the lives of the characters, and we get to watch as they discover new things about love, magic, and friendship.

                                                                                                                                                                                    

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Books of Hope - The House at Pooh Corner

I have said it before and I will say it again: these are trying times. For the most part the news is full of stories about loss, suffering, and evil-doing. It is depressing. What does one do in such times? Eating a lot of chocolate is a good place to start, but, alas, the pleasure eating chocolate gives does not last long, and the consumption of said delight inevitably leads to feelings of guilt.

I am firm believer in the therapeutic power of books, and so I always find myself turning to old book friends in times of trouble. One of my favorite book friends is the book The House at Pooh Corner. One cannot read this book without cracking a smile, which then leads to one experiencing a softening of the edges feeling. By the time the last page is read, the heart is eased, and hope starts to gather itself up once more,


The House at Pooh Corner 
A. A. Milne
Illustrator:  Ernest H. Shepard
Fiction  Series
For ages 5 and up
Penguin, 1988, 978-0525444442
It seems as if we have only just begun to get to know Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, and yet here we are having to prepare ourselves to say goodbye already. And yet there are still a few more stories that need to be told before we leave. The stories include, among others, a tale about a Heffalump, one about the search for Small, and we hear about how Tigger comes to the forest.
   Indeed, Tigger features quite prominently in this collection of tales. He arrives in the middle of the night, full of enthusiasm and bounces. He tells Pooh that Tiggers like to eat everything, but they soon find out that this is not quite true. Tiggers do not like honey, nor do they care for haycorns. And as for thistles, well they are far too hot and have “too many spikes.” It becomes clear that it is going to be no easy task to find out what Tiggers do like to eat.
   Thankfully, Tigger does find out what his favorite food is and, to the relief of everyone, he goes to live with Kanga and Roo. Then the bouncy animal and Roo get into a spot of bother when the two friends decide to climb a tree. It turns out that that Tiggers are very good at getting up trees but they are not very skilled at getting down.
   There can be no doubt that this book will appeal to readers of all ages. Children will love to hear about the simple adventures that Pooh and his friends have. Older readers will discover that Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood world is not that different from the one that we live in. The mistakes that are made and the confusions that are occur sound awfully familiar. As for the characters, well they are so like real people that we almost expect to see Rabbit living next door. After all, we all know people who like to be admired – like Rabbit – and others who like to pretend that they know more than they actually do – like Owl. There are those quiet and shy little folks who dream of being a hero one day – like Piglet, and finally there are those who don’t realize that they have a lot more to offer the world than they think they do – like Pooh himself.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Picture Book Monday with a review of Niko Draws a Feeling

I once had a teacher who thought that his interpretation of a poem, play, or novel was the only interpretation that was worth anything. When I tried to offer up my ideas about what I thought the writer was saying, I was firmly shot down. I found this very annoying. Everyone brings their own perspective to the table when it comes to interpreting a piece of writing, a piece of music, or a work of art. Similarly, writers, musicians, and artists perceive the world in different ways.

In this picture book readers will meet a little boy who loves to draw feelings, and unfortunately no one really understands his art. His friends and family members think he should be drawing things rather than emotions, and they are confused by his creations. They do not understand that Niko has a different way of seeing and interacting with his world.

Niko Draws a Feeling Niko Draws a Feeling
Bob Raczka
Illustrations by Simone Shin
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Carolrhoda, 2017, 978-1-4677-9843-3
Niko loves to draw pictures and he is constantly being inspired by the things that he sees around him. The thing about Niko is that he likes to draw feelings, sounds, and sensations rather than things. Instead of drawing the ice cream truck, he draws the ‘ring-a-ling’ sound that the ice cream truck bell makes. Instead of drawing the autumn sun, he draws the sensation of the sun’s warmth on his face. Instead of drawing a mother robin that is hard at work building her nest he draws her work, her labors as she builds her nest.
   Niko loves his unique creative process and the way in which inspiration comes to him, but he cannot help feeling a little sad that his friends, parents, and teacher don’t understand his art. Not being able to share what he is doing with others is hard, and life is a little lonely for the boy. One day he draws a self-portrait of his feelings and he puts this portrait behind a door. No one will understand it anyway.
   Then, one day a girl called Iris moves in next door, and something truly remarkable happens.
   This wonderful book celebrates the creative process and explores the idea that people see and experience the world in different ways. The important thing to remember is to be open to those differences, because you never know what new wonders you will discover if you do.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Picture Book Monday with a review of The Darkest Dark

Facing your fears is never easy to do. Imagine what it would be like to be a chef who is afraid of knives, or a doctor who has a fear of needles. In this clever picture book biography you will meet a little boy who loves to pretend that he is an astronaut and who is fascinated by space. Perhaps he even dreams of going up into space one day. There is a problem though; the little boy is afraid of the dark.

The Darkest DarkThe Darkest Dark
Chris Hadfield
Illustrated by the Fan Brothers
Picture Book
For ages 5 to 7
Tundra Books, 2017, 978-1-101-91862-3
Chris loves pretending that he is an astronaut. In fact, he is often so busy flying around in his cardboard rocket, saving the planet from aliens or visiting Mars, that he has a hard time making time for baths and bedtime. After all “An astronaut’s work is never done,” and they don’t like wasting time on sleep. The problem is that Chris’ parents do like to sleep and so they are not best pleased when Chris climbs into bed with them. Nor are they too thrilled when he tells them that the darkness in his room is the kind that “attracts the worst sorts of aliens.”
   Some parents might give in at this point and let their son sleep with them, but Chris’ parents are putting their feet down. Chris will get over his fear of the dark and he will sleep in his own bed. They check to make sure that his room is “100 percent alien free,” they turn on his night light, and they even give him a bell to ring if he gets nervous. Then they take the bell away.
   Chris is then told that he needs to stop his fooling around because if he doesn’t he will not be able to attend the special event that is going to take place at their neighbor’s house the next day. Being able to go next door the next day is so important to Chris that he stays in his bed, and after a long time he falls asleep. What Chris does not know yet is that his experiences the next day will change how he feels about the dark, and it will influence the choices that he makes in his life in the future.
   Written by the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, this wonderful picture book shows young readers how a single event can change ones perspective and even change one’s life. In Chris’ case what he saw that on that special night at his neighbor’s house planted the seed of a dream in his heart, and it was a dream that he never gave up on. He worked hard until the day came when he finally got his chance to go into space.
   At the back of the book young readers will find further information about Chris Hadfield. They can also read a message from Chris, and see photos of him when he was a little boy and when he was an adult working in space at the International Space Station.
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