All The Awards for This One, Please (and a Jump on Black History Month)
January 26, 2023 § 2 Comments
Get ready to roll out the red carpet! The kid lit world is abuzz with the anticipation of the Youth Media Awards, which will be announced by the American Library Association this coming Monday. One of the frontrunners for multiple awards, including the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, not to mention the Coretta Scott King Award, is a picture book aimed at imparting a piece of devastating, powerful, and essential American history to elementary and middle school children—as well as to the parents and teachers that will hopefully share it with them. That it does so with unique artistry, searing lyricism, and the pulsating refrain of love is what distinguishes Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (ages 8-12), written by Angela Joy, with artwork by debut illustrator, Janelle Washington, among its fellow 2022 contenders.
I was impressed with the book even before I read it aloud to my kids and husband earlier this week. But after speaking the poetic text aloud, after taking time to appreciate the motifs in the illustrations, after noting the questions that arose and the reflection that followed, I was floored. Actually, I was floored as much by what I gained in that moment as by what I had been missing.
As was the case Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, a picture book that pulled in multiple awards last year, the experience of sharing Choosing Brave with my family was another stark reminder of the profound gaps in my own knowledge of Black history.
I was eleven years old when Black History Month was formalized. Even then, my education was cursory at best. Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman were taught alongside discussions of slavery. Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and MLK were the only headliners I heard in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement. I’m fairly positive The Great Migration wasn’t on my radar at all. Certainly not things like racial passing, until my good friend started writing her dissertation on it. Before last year, I thought the Tulsa Race Massacre concerned a running race.
It wasn’t until 2018, when I read Jewell Parker Rhodes’ middle-grade novel, Ghost Boys, that I began to think about the impact of the murder of Emmett Till, a name I previously associated only with tragedy. It wasn’t until Choosing Brave that I learned about the mother behind this fourteen-year-old boy. Here was someone who did something in her grief that was so smart, so courageous, that its ripple effects are still felt today. To leave these two—and countless others—out of our discussions of Black History is to deprive our country of a continued march towards progress. Especially when we’re still so far from the finish.
And so, for the umpteenth time, I am grateful for the children’s authors and illustrators who are telling these stories and telling them so well. These books are the best chance our children have for getting a robust history of this country—assuming their access to these stories isn’t restricted (and that’s no easy feat these days). But the best part? In partaking in these stories, our kids can bring us along for the ride.
(Linking a few past posts on Black History here, here, and here, while I’m feeling fired up.)
Let’s take a look at Choosing Brave, which clocks in at a whopping 64 pages and would deserve any accolades it receives next Monday, for words and art. Angela Joy’s evocative text, underscored with repetition, moves backwards and forward in time to tell a story of mother and son that’s much more than the tragedy at its heart. And Janelle Washington’s black cut-paper collages, notable for their silhouetted forms and strategically-placed pops of color, the latter created with tissue paper, assume an iconic, almost religious feel. (“I just had to pray and brave it,” Mamie Till Washington is quoted as saying in the book’s epigraph.) In fact, in a superior act of bookmaking, the pages themselves have a kind of waxy, glazy finish, giving the art the effect of stained glass in a church, at once confined and luminous.« Read the rest of this entry »
Seizing His Shot: A Black History Month Post
February 4, 2021 § 1 Comment
(Check out previous years’ picks for Black History Month here, here, and here. I’ll also be sharing other new titles celebrating Black history all month long over on Instagram.)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it ‘till the cows come home: picture books aren’t just for little kids! Keeping picture books alive and well at home, even after our kids are reading independently, means not only continuing to expose them to arresting art and sensational storytelling, it means piquing their interest about a range of subjects they might not seek out on their own. After all, it can be much less intimidating to pick up a picture book than a chapter book, especially on a subject you don’t know much about.
I love a picture book that sneaks in a history lesson without ever feeling instructional. One of my favorite picture book biographies published last year, Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball (Ages 6-10), also happens to be an excellent primer on the Civil Rights Movement. But you’d expect nothing left from the all-star team of Sibert Medalist, Jen Bryant, and two-time Coretta Scott King Medalist, Frank Morrison.
Jen Bryant is best known for her picture book biographies of artists and writers (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams is a favorite), but she was drawn to NBA Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, because in addition to his undeniable talent on the court, he also fundamentally changed the game itself. “Artists change how we see things, how we perceive human limits, and how we define ourselves and our culture,” Bryant writes in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. By this definition, Elgin Baylor—who as one of the first professional African-American players broke nearly every tradition in the sport—was every bit the artist. And Bryant uses her love of language to make his story leap off the page.
In that vein, too, it seems fitting that Frank Morrison should illustrate the basketball icon, using his signature unconventional style of oil painting that distorts and elongates the human figure, giving it both elasticity and a larger-than-life aura. (Morrison illustrates one of my other favorite 2020 picture book biographies, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.) Morrison’s art in Above the Rim is kinetic; it buzzes like the energy on a court. But it’s also dramatic, moving from shadow into light, much like the broader social movement in which Elgin Baylor found himself a quiet but powerful participant.
Should I mention my ten-year-old daughter (mourning the loss of basketball in this pandemic) adores this book and reaches for it often?« Read the rest of this entry »
Never Too Old to Learn
January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments
Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.
“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”
“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.
Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”
On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”
Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.
Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)
March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments
If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.
And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. « Read the rest of this entry »
Introducing Activism to Children
November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments
In light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.
What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened? « Read the rest of this entry »
The Right to Vote
February 11, 2016 § 6 Comments
With such a heated presidential election upon us, voting has been a popular topic of conversation in our house. My eight year old is trying to make sense of the candidate names he has heard; and he repeatedly asks my husband and I who we “want to win” this November, convinced with that blind, beautiful eight-year-old innocence that his parents’ choice must be the right one. (I’m tempted to blow his mind by telling him that his dad and I might each want someone different.)
The right to vote may be one that many of us Americans take for granted today (much like trying on shoes at a store—see last year’s post for Black History Month); and yet, it also seems to inspire a certain awe in our children. Or at least it did in me when I was young. My mother would take me along when she voted in major elections. We’d wait in line, hand in hand, and then part of me would cringe in betrayal when at last it was her turn and she would pull the curtain closed around the voting booth, leaving her on one side and me on the other. I would strain to see her shadow beneath the curtain, trying to make heads or tails of what she was doing in there. “Can’t I come in with you?” I’d lament. “Isn’t it unsafe to leave me out here all alone?” I’d try. But her answer was always the same: “Voting is private. What I do in here is nobody’s business but my own.” That night, I’d try harassing my father: “But you did vote for who you said you were going to, right?” “That’s for me to know,” my dad would reply, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. « Read the rest of this entry »
Changing the World Through Song: A Post for MLK Jr. Day
January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
Last year’s post, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, continues to be one of my most read and shared posts. I don’t think there’s any way to top Kadir Nelson’s moving picture book biography of King, so I thought I’d talk this year, not about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but about his followers—the ones who marched, the ones who stood up for what they believed, the ones who sang. I was giddy with excitement to discover Debbie Levy’s new picture book, We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (Ages 5-10)—one, because I have always loved that song (it crops up at surprising times, like when I’m hiding in the bathroom in an attempt to keep from screaming at my children); and two, because music has recently taken our house by a storm. « Read the rest of this entry »
“Use Your Words” (MLK Jr. Style)
January 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
In a few days, our country will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and a presidential inauguration. Whatever our political views, whatever our race or gender or religion or socioeconomic background, we can do our children a great service by talking to them about Dr. King’s vision of justice and peace, his commitment to respecting the dignity of every human being.
I’ve found that parents, especially us white Americans, are reluctant to broach the subject of race relations with preschoolers or even young elementary students. Ashamed of our country’s past afflictions, it’s as if we can pretend they never existed if we don’t talk about them. But child development specialists and sociologists (like Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of NurtureShock) have pointed out that children naturally notice differences in appearances, and that if we don’t have these conversations with them from an early age, they will begin to draw their own conclusions—and, even worse, begin to view the subject as taboo—which does nothing to advance our nation’s long and still arduous progression toward equality. And, let’s be honest, have you ever met a five or seven or ten year old that isn’t obsessed with the notion of fairness? For that matter, how many times a day do we as parents plead with our children, “Use your words!” (say, when said children yank something out of their sibling’s hands or push a peer on the school playground)?