Monday, February 27, 2012

Library Find - Beautiful Bananas by Elizabeth Laird

Story is so critical to us as human beings. Literally every culture has storytelling as a fundamental component of socialization and community. In many cultures oral history is passed on from generation to generation through stories, some of which seem mystical and fantastical to outsiders but which, upon further examination, speak volumes about the values that are central to that culture's way of life.

I love folk tales for this reason - you can really get a sense of what makes a particular population tick when you examine the elements that occur over and over again in their stories (it begs the question, doesn't it, what outsiders would think of a certain spate of vampire lit -- most especially sparkly ones!). In East Africa, like other regions, stories are related not only to connect with the past but to instill a sense of pride, of connection with the land and the people who came before. Animals are often central figures in these tales, because animals represent character traits and nature and the gifts the earth gives to us. Which makes them an ideal type of tale to share with young children, who still are in a sense of awe around animals of every sort.

Sprout's been going through a particular fascination lately with elephants. I wish I could say this was due to some great developmental teaching or experience, but really it's probably because there's a Thomas episode he likes where one of the trains encounters a tunnel that's blocked by an elephant (don't ask). So when he pulled the book Beautiful Bananas by Elizabeth Laird off the shelf at the library recently, he immediately screamed "Elephant, Mama, elephant!". (Thank goodness our librarians are indulgent about excitable child noise!)

Well, we had to stop and read the book right away, because not only does the cover feature the aforementioned elephant, but also bananas, a frog, and a little girl with brown skin. Perfection, no? And the perfection carries through the story, which is a circular tale that comes from East Africa. Our heroine, Beatrice, is headed off to visit her granddad with a bunch of bananas to give as a gift. Right off the bat she runs into a giraffe, whose "tufty tail" sweeps the bananas off Beatrice's head and into the river nearby. Beatrice is upset, but the giraffe offers her some flowers for Granddad instead -- which is a great solution, until a bunch of bees come along and the flowers get crushed (here Sprout always whispers "Bees!" and shivers with the delicious dangerousness of these stingy critters). But the bees make it right by giving Beatrice some honey, which is taken by monkeys.

And on and on it goes, each page featuring an African animal or insect that is more beguiling than the last. Really, those monkeys? You can see why Beatrice isn't too upset, because they're so darn cute. Illustrator Liz Pichon brings Laird's funny and fantastic story to life in just the right way. Beatrice is vivacious and bubbly, whether she's being frightened by a lion or sneezed on by an elephant. And the colorful spreads provide plenty of fun details, especially the last one that features each of the animals Beatrice encounters.

This is a simply delightful tale and a great way to introduce young children to folklore. Plus, for us, it was fun to point out to Sprout that he once lived in a home much like Beatrice's and may just have been told a similar story by his Ethiopian relatives. Love it when a great book helps make important connections!

Beautiful Bananas by Elizabeth Laird, published by Peachtree Publishers
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Some naughty monkeys see the honeycomb. 'We like honey!' they cry. They snatch it away from Beatrice. All the honey drips onto the ground."

Bonus: more about author Elizabeth Laird

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Picture Book Review - Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia

Hitting the right balance with a culturally specific tale is no easy feat. You want the book to appeal to insiders, by being authentic and a true representation of their cultural experience. At the same time you need it to be something that cultural outsiders can appreciate, even if they have no knowledge of traditions or even language. Tough stuff indeed.

The same is true for intergenerational stories - the plot needs to be believable and realistic. Why is this young kid interested in what an oldster has to say, anyway? What's his/her motivation to listen? We've all read historical fiction in which the often-used trope of "come little child, let me tell you a tale" is trotted out, and most of the time it's thin at best. We just aren't given a good rationale for keeps the kiddies enthralled.

And so, since it is both culturally specific and intergenerational, you might think Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji has the deck stacked against it. But you'd be wrong, because this is a story that works on many levels: specific enough to speak to cultural insiders, broad enough to appeal to outsiders, and held together by the truly believable bond between grandfather and grandson.

The book begins with Aneel's grandparents coming from India. Aneel relishes his time with them, especially Dada-ji's wonderful stories. He loves to hear the tales of Dada-ji's amazing strength as a young lad - wrestling elephants and tying cobras in a knot. And what was the young boy's secret? Eating lots of his mother's fluffy-puffy roti, hot from the grill and topped with spicy mango pickle. Mmmmm! Dada-ji can almost taste the roti now! So Aneel asks everyone to make some, but all the members of the family are busy. It's up to Aneel, and he gets to work, making a huge stack of delicious roti for Dada-ji. When the last scrap of roti has been gobbled up, Dada-ji has his famous strength -- and the two go off to the yard to have some new adventures together.

It's interesting to note that this is the first picture book for both author F. Zia and illustrator Ken Min. The quality of this effort certainly speaks to a pair of artists who know how to craft a work that appeals to a broad audience. Sprinkling culturally specific elements throughout the text, Zia lets us in on what life was like for Dada-ji as a young boy. I especially appreciate that she doesn't interrupt the flow of the story to define the Hindi words, but rather includes a glossary in the back for those of us who may be unfamiliar with the terms. And Min's illustrations are spot-on: you can feel the power welling up in Dada-ji as he gulps down the huge stack of roti, and the shifting perspectives he uses (watching from inside the bowl as Aneel dumps the flour down) add a playful element that's just right. I love the energy that bursts from each of the characters, especially Aneel, who is excited to be doing something for his grandfather.

Sprout LOVED this book, which surprised me because it's a bit on the long side and more introspective than some of his favorites. But he asked for it over and over again, and was thrilled when my husband offered to take us all out for Indian food the other night. (Here he is, enjoying his own hot, hot roti - ok, naan bread, but it was hot and delicious too!)

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, published by Lee & Low
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "What made the lad so strong? It was the hot, hot roti that sizzled and wizzled on Badi-ma's wood hearth. You see, baba, Badi-ma made the best roti around! Hungry villagers trampled tall fields and swam angry rivers to sniff the fluffy-puffy roti that bubbled and wobbled in ghee on the hot, hot tavva pan."

Bonus: interview with F. Zia at The Happy Nappy Bookseller

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mom's Bookshelf - How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood

When it comes to parenting notions, most of us don't stray too far outside the realm of what we know to be true. We might do what our parents did, or actively try not to do what they did. We consult parenting books that receive high marks, check out websites, seek out the advice of other moms and dads for particularly thorny issues. But most of us don't look much beyond our cultural comfort zone when considering how to discipline our kiddos or what time we should be putting them to bed.

And then there's Mei-Ling Hopgood.

Hopgood and her husband were thrilled to add daughter Sofia to their family, while living abroad in Argentina. Pretty much everything the couple knew about kids they had learned through their own cornfed American upbringings. Essential gear? Strollers and pull-ups. Approved play? Mommy and me. Sleeping arrangements? Bedtime and crib for one.

But then Hopgood started noticing how Argentine parents treated bedtime - more of a suggestion than anything, with young kids present in restaurants and out and about far later than American children generally are. Digging deeper, Hopgood found the roots of this practice in the culture of her adopted homeland. What she found was less about sleep habits and more about what the Argentine approach to bedtime says about their attitude toward children as a whole. And far from negligent parenting (which is, let's be honest, what most of us might think here if we saw kids eating dinner at 10 p.m.), in Argentina it's considered an important part of family togetherness.

This led Mei-Ling Hopgood to begin exploring parenting practices around the globe, compiling her findings in the fascinating book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting. Hopgood's research is incredibly insightful, as she digs into why Mayan children participate (happily!) in household chores and how French moms and dads get their children (willingly!) eating veggies. In each case that Hopgood examines, we learn a little something about the particular cultural norms that are transmitted from parent to child, and how those norms support the larger values and beliefs of that cultural system.

As an undergrad sociology/anthropology major, this stuff is right up my alley, and it really made me think about why we hold the beliefs we do about proper nutrition, playtime, and yes, even bedtime. Much of what we do is in all honesty pretty arbitrary, when it all comes down to it. And in fact it could just be that the Japanese are on to something when they let kids work out their own petty squabbles with -- shock of shocks! -- little or no adult intervention. Can you imagine??!

Though I'm not giving up our stroller just yet, I'll admit that Hopgood makes some pretty intriguing points here. And if nothing else, I'll feel a lot less guilty next time we stay up a little past bedtime.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Picture Book Review - A House in the Woods by Inga Moore

Every night at bedtime, Sprout's allowed to pick out his own reading material. We usually get through 3-4 books while he's taking his bath, and then we do one more once he's all snuggled down in bed. I used to do the selections, trying to reserve a calmer title for that last one of the night, but lately he's all about doing it himself. And for the past several nights, Sprout has chosen only one book for that last selection: A House in the Woods by Inga Moore.

If you're not familiar with Inga Moore, you're in for a treat. She's probably best known for Six-Dinner Sid, about a greedy little black cat whose elaborate plot to get multiple dinners every night eventually trips him up (or does it?). She's also published a number of acclaimed illustrated volumes, most notably her iteration of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame -- cannot wait until Sprout's old enough for this one!

And in A House in the Woods Inga Moore gives us a book that is as charming and cozy as Wind in the Willows, albeit in a different vein. The plot is fairly simple: a couple of pigs have built themselves perfectly lovely homes in the woods, but when each pig gets an unexpected houseguest, their homes are ruined. Suddenly the two pigs, and Moose and Bear, find themselves without living quarters. What's the most logical solution? Build themselves a proper house, of course. So the unlikely group hires themselves a pack of beaver builders to do the job. Luckily for them, beavers work cheap. Soon enough the little group has a sturdy and suitable home, complete with all the comforts -- all of that for only the price of several plates of peanut butter sandwiches (told you those beavers were a bargain!).

It's just about impossible for me to convey in writing how delightfully lovely this book is. Really, it's the kind of book you read as a child and remember fondly as an adult. The characters all get along splendidly, working together to accomplish their goal. The reward for their hard work is satisfyingly handsome, and best of all they all get to curl up together at the end of the night and dream about their labors. And the illustrations -- oh my, how gorgeous they are! I'm not exaggerating when I say that each time we read it, one of us notices something new: from the crooked stick that one pig finds at the beginning, to the lovely squishy pillows the group brings home from the badger junkyard. Oh, and the friends themselves are pitch-perfect: gangly Moose, all knees and elbows, the busy little pigs, and bumbly Bear.

Sprout thinks a visit to the house in the woods is the perfect way to end the night, and I heartily agree. You'll want to pull yourself and your kiddo right inside this cozy picture book and never leave.

A House in the Woods by Inga Moore, published by Candlewick
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "Which left the two Little Pigs with nowhere to live--not to mention Moose and Bear. This was a pickle. It really was."
Highly recommended

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day!

Who'd have thought finding a multicultural book for Valentine's Day would be such a tall order? I mean, I get that this is a holiday that's not exactly celebrated all around the globe -- and, in truth, it isn't one of my favorites. But this year Sprout's old enough to pick out valentines cards and small candies to share with his friends, and of course if we're going to recognize a holiday we need to read a book about it, too.

Oh boy, did I have my work cut out for me.

Sure, there are books about love and kisses and hugs that feature diverse casts of characters. But I wanted something that would relate the custom we follow here, of making or giving valentines to our special friends. And that presented more of a challenge.

Thank goodness for libraries, though. They have the older titles that just don't crop up on most booksellers' radar any longer. And in this case the older title was Valentine's Day by Anne Rockwell. In this book, the members of Mrs Madoff's class are making some very special valentines to send to their friend Michiko, who has moved away to Japan. Each person in the class thinks of something fun that they remember about Michiko, and uses that as their inspiration in creating a valentine. For Kate, it's flying kites together; for Eveline, it's the wonderful gift Michiko gave her for her birthday; for Nicholas, it's the way Michiko always gave him his turn on the slide. In each spread, colorfully illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell, the special memory comes to life, appearing opposite the hand-crafted valentine that inspired it.

Reading this one with Sprout provided us with the opportunity to talk about friends, and how much they mean to us. We also got to talk about what it feels like when someone you love is far away. Though it's not something that he fully understands yet, when he gets older he may begin to experience loss at times when everyone else is celebrating, because people he is intimately connected with aren't part of his daily life any longer. When that happens, it's good for us to have books like Valentine's Day in our arsenal - to show him that time and distance don't diminish the love we feel in our hearts.

Valentine's Day by Anne Rockwell, published by HarperCollins
Ages 2-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Sarah's valentine is pink. Her valentine says, 'I miss you every single day, especially when it's snack time.'"

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

YA Review - How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Teen fiction is not what it used to be. There's a lot been said in recent months about the darkness of it, about how vampires and werewolves and paranormal romance are going to be the undoing of modern youth (which I highly doubt - if anything, it's getting them reading, right?). But what I think is most significant is that authors who write for teens are willing to explore new topics and themes. Yes, some of these lead to dark places, but others just examine the messy business that is real life, which so rarely comes wrapped up with a cutesy little bow. (Maureen Johnson says it better here than I possibly could.)

Take Sara Zarr, for instance. Zarr writes realistic contemporary fiction for teens - in other words, no time traveling detectives here. And what she writes are novels that peel back the layers, one by one, that construct the experience of teens in this reality, right now. These are kids who face difficult problems, many of which are brought on by forces outside their control, just like kids always have, but who do so in a culture that is often frantic and always changing. You know what I mean.

In How to Save a Life, Zarr brings us a whole slew of issues in the form of Jill, her mother Robin, and Mandy, a pregnant teenager whose baby Robin hopes to adopt. Jill's bitter, and angry, not about the baby so much as she is about the sudden death of her father in a car accident almost a year ago. She's dealt with her grief by building walls around herself, pushing away anyone and everyone who cares, and not letting anyone new inside her circle. And here comes Mandy, bursting with life and new possibilities, but with secrets and pain of her own. Mandy knows Jill doesn't like her, but she's so grateful to be in a safe place, a real home, not the cobbled-together life she's lived with her mother's rotating boyfriends. OK, so maybe Mandy has misrepresented herself a teeny bit, but it's for a good reason, right?

And then the carefully constructed facade that each character has made for herself begins to crumble. Mandy's never had someone care for her like Robin does, and she's not sure she's ready to give that up -- or her baby, for that matter. Jill thinks she knows the role everyone in her life has to play, and it's all structured. But then an unexpected encounter in the parking lot leads to a new friend that Jill just can't shake, and a growing realization that the emotions she's kept bottled up won't stay there forever. Both girls struggle to find their footing on this shaky new territory, and to reexamine what they thought they knew about themselves at the most elemental core of their being.

Zarr's writing is balanced and fluid, her gaze unflinching as she peers into the most secret corners of her characters' lives. No one is wholly good or entirely bad, and for that I applaud her -- if you're looking for stereotypes, you won't find any here. Most interesting of all, she turns adoption inside out, giving voice to the experience from all angles. As a birth mother, Mandy wrestles with the idea that her daughter will one day feel abandoned, or think that Mandy didn't love her. As a prospective adoptive parent, Robin wonders if what she's doing is enough, or if she owes a greater debt. And as a soon-to-be older sibling, Jill fluctuates from feeling betrayed to mourning the fact that her sister will never know the father that Jill so adored.

Those who say they don't read "kids books" are really missing out when it comes to authors like Sara Zarr. Honestly, I'd put How to Save a Life up against anything from an "adult" author and it would hold its own. Strong characters, skilled writing and a story that sticks with the reader long after the last page is turned. In my book, that's quality fiction, no matter where it's shelved.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr, published by Little, Brown
Ages: 12 up
Source: Library
Mandy -- "My mother says that when another girl steps up to you, just smile and let her have the last word. My mother says it's usually jealousy or her wanting something you have. But I can't think of one thing I have that Jill, who has everything, could want. And I can't smile when we're talking about a tragedy."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Liebster Blog Award

Thanks to Michelle Cusolito over at the fantastically-named Polliwog on Safari, Sprout's Bookshelf is now an award-winning blog! That's right folks, Michelle honored me with the Liebster Blog Award. From her post: "The origins of the Liebster Blog Award are unclear, but the word translates from German as "darling" or "beloved." It's given to bloggers who have less than 200 followers in order to generate some traffic for them." Of Sprout's Bookshelf, Michelle writes "This blog is new to me. I discovered it during the KidLit Comment Challenge and boy am I glad I did."

Well, how can I not be honored by that?? Seriously, it's been such a pleasure just writing this blog, mainly as a way for me to keep track of all the books we read as a family - getting kudos from anyone is just the icing on the cake!

Here's the deal - as part of the award I need to thank the giver (done - thanks, Michelle!), post the award here, tell 5 random facts about myself, and pay the award forward to 5 more deserving blogs.

On to the random facts:

1. I love to travel. Love, love, love it. We don't get to do it enough. And one of my favorite travel rituals is buying trashy magazines to read on the plane - hold the Jane Austen, when in transit I'm a People magazine girl all the way.

2. I hate squash (all kinds), watermelon, olives, raisins and pickles. And coffee, even coffee ice cream, makes me gag, which is too bad since my son is from Ethiopia, home of the world's best coffee -- or so I'm told.

3. In high school, I played the part of Ernestine in our school's production of Cheaper by the Dozen. It was cheesy and fantastic, and I loved every minute of it.

4. I have zero artistic talent. Seriously. Can't crochet, knit, draw, sew or play an instrument, although I have nothing but admiration for those who can. The closest I get is baking, and I mostly do that when I'm stressed out. Come finals, it's wall-to-wall chocolate chip cookies around here!

5. I love water rides at theme parks. My favorite ride at Disneyland is Splash Mountain. At Disney's California Adventure I once begged the attendant to let us stay on Grizzly River Run until my husband got wet - by the third time around he was pretty drenched, but I was soaked through and had to go back to the hotel to change. Totally worth it.

Soooo, now on to the five blogs I'd like to honor with this award!

1. Storied Cities -- I love book blogs with cool and unusual slants, and this one has a great premise: children's books set in and about urban landscapes. Though this blogger's bio states "I've never laid claim to being a great reviewer", I absolutely beg to differ. And you will too.

2. A Mother, A Daughter, and 100 Books -- Ditto the unique approach on this recently launched blog. This mom and daughter aim to read their way through Betsy Bird's Top 100 Fictional Chapter Books, examining each one in detail and blogging their reaction. So far the duo has tackled Little House in the Big Woods, and reading along with their thoughts about Laura Ingalls Wilder's book has been a true pleasure. Can't wait for more, ladies!

3. A Random Hodgepodge of Bookishness -- Amy describes herself as "a public librarian who doesn't get to talk about books enough at work", and her blog is truly a great mix of adult, teen and children's picks. Every word in Amy's reviews is well chosen and her comments are thoughtful, something I really appreciate and would love to emulate!

4. Literary Lunchbox -- Here's someone who's not afraid to mix it up - picture books, chapter books, series reviews and some adult stuff too. Ali's posts are written in a personable, conversational way, so you feel like you're learning about books from a trusted friend. And how can you not love a blogger whose profile pic shows her reading The Tale of Despereaux??

5. Delightful Children's Books -- I suspect a lot of folks are already reading this entertaining and visually appealing blog. If you're not, you'll want to add it to your reader right now. (Go ahead, I'll wait.) Because this one is chock-full of goodness, including booklists broken down by age and a feature called "Read Around the World". Delightful indeed.

And there we are! Thanks again to Michelle, blogger at Polliwog on Safari, for sharing this award with me!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Veggies Rock!

My name is Mary, and I'm raising a veggie-phobe.

It didn't start out that way. When Sprout first joined our family he would eat anything and everything. We were so proud of our non-picky child! But as he got older, things changed, and his aversion to meat has spread to veggies. While he adores fruit and would eat nothing but that at every meal, veggies (with the exception of "dippy" carrots) are firmly on the "no, not like it" list.

It's more than a little frustrating.

In an effort to move through this phase a little quicker, I decided recently that a little bibliotherapy was in order. First up was Lois Ehlert's Eating the Alphabet. We've read and enjoyed a few of Ehlert's other books, and this is similarly engaging. The illustrations are what Eating the Alphabet is all about: huge, vivid, graphic representations of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Sprout enjoyed pointing out the ones he knew (pumpkin, broccoli, oranges) and trying out new words like rhubarb or kumquat. He was a little confused by some things, though - for instance, gooseberry, about which he says "dat not goose, Mama."

Next we tried Rah, Rah Radishes by April Pulley Sayre. This was a HUGE hit, more so than I could have anticipated . It's not too hard to see why. For starters, Sayre's included some gorgeous color photos of veggies in all their glory, and the pictures really make the vegetables look succulent. Sprout's always excited to act out taking a bite of the carrots, and they look mighty delicious, I must say. Plus, the rhymes in this book are absolutely infectious. After we'd read it a couple of nights in a row (it has become one of the most-requested titles in our rotation), Sprout could quote chunks of the veggie-centric chants verbatim. You should have seen the looks we got in the grocery store produce section when he yelled "Broccoli, cauliflower, give a cheer!".

Then we decided to bring the topic full circle with Soup Day by Melissa Iwai. Just looking at the cover of this book, you know you're in for a treat. I love this gentle title, not only because it shows off veggies like celery and zucchini, but also because it's all about a cozy afternoon at home making soup. Sprout loves the part where the narrator, a little girl with straight black hair, shows off the pasta shapes she picks to go with her veggies. And he never fails to say "Yum!" when she displays her finished soup, steaming hot and delicious. The illustrations here are engaging and soothing, a perfect match to the rhythm of the story and of the little girl's day. We even made our own pot of soup (there's a recipe included, though we used a different one), and Sprout pronounced it "Yum" too.

Best of all, when we sat down to dinner the other night, suddenly Sprout was far less averse to the veggie portion of the plate. He even discovered one new veggie that he likes - cucumbers! It may be a baby step, but we're headed in the right direction. And it's all thanks to picture books, naturally.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nonfiction Picture Book - Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud

So much of history is in the telling. When presented as a recitation of facts, dates, events, it can be pretty dry, as anyone who took World History 101 in college can probably confirm (the most exciting thing was waiting for the prof to nod off during the lecture). But when made personal, when fleshed out with actual people and details and colorful back stories, then it comes alive and suddenly seems relevant to your life.

Such is the case with the Civil Rights Movement. Arguably one of the most important periods in our country's history, and a time chock-full of passion, dedication, emotion and fevered anxiety on all sides -- and yet, for many kids, I suspect this too has been boiled down to a timeline of key events. Critical to know, of course, but not very real, not very personal.

Into that gap rides Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend. Belle epitomizes the quality that exists in nonfiction picture books today; authors Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud have done their homework, taken a story rooted in actual fact and brought it to life with the introduction of some wholly believable fictional characters. Coupled with the extraordinary artistic renderings of John Holyfield, the result is a knock-out piece of publishing that belongs on every library and classroom shelf.

The story centers around the people of Gee's Bend, Alabama, and the part they played in the struggle for civil rights for all citizens. "Benders", as these folks were known, didn't have much, but they had determination and belief in the cause. Stirred by a visit from Dr Martin Luther King Jr., the Benders pluck up the courage to take the ferry to Camden and register to vote. Upon arriving there, they are stopped by the white sheriff, who has shut the ferry down. But the Benders will not be swayed -- instead, they pack up their wagons and hitch up their mules, Belle included, and make the trip all the way around the river to register.

It's not a peaceful resolution. Life in Gee's Bend gets even harder in the wake of the backlash that results from their actions. But the Benders soldier on. And then in April 1968, Dr King is killed. The grief that sweeps through the nation is felt even more strongly in Gee's Bend. But some of that grief is eased when the Benders find out that it was Dr King's wish to have mules pull the wagon with his coffin. And so Belle and Ada, the mules of Gee's Bend, become part of history, a further manifestation of all the quiet determination of their owners and others who fought for civil rights.

Framing the story around young Alex, who has come to Gee's Bend with his mother and hears the story from Belle's owner, is a touch of genius on Ramsey and Stroud's part. They skillfully weave in the interaction between Alex and Miz Pettway, making Belle's tale an organic part of the conversation. And in so doing, they bring home the impact of history. Young readers will mirror Alex's dawning realization, as he comes to recognize that the people he's learned about in school were flesh and blood, just like himself and his family, not just characters in a book. Talk about bringing history to life -- Ramsey and Stroud do it in such a way that readers won't even think about this as a tale from "long ago". Vivid, emotional details in the illustrations emphasize the reality even further, from the gentle smiles of the Gee's Bend quilters to the placid dignity of Belle and Ada, pulling Dr King's coffin through the streets.

Read this one with your kids, with your students, or just for yourself. Read it and remember.

Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample: "But we must have scared the white folks in Camden, because the next thing we knew, they shut down the ferry. The white sheriff was a big bully who wanted to keep us in our place. He told reporters, 'We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.'"
Highly recommended

Bonus: interview with illustrator John Holyfield at The Brown Bookshelf