Tag Archive for: cmatekel-gibson

Papá’s Magical Water-Jug Clock by Jesús Trejo

By the time this review is published, Summer Reading will have begun at the Joplin Public Library. The Summer Reading Program is a free, all ages reading challenge that runs from May 28th through July 21. Participants can keep track of their reading during that time on a paper log or online (www.joplinpubliclibrary.org/summer-reading) and win prizes. The reading challenge is accompanied by in-person events for all ages. Our theme this year is “Adventure Begins at Your Library.” I have selected a few of my favorite books that fit this theme to share in my review.

On the surface, the plot of Jesús Trejo and Eliza Kinkz’s Papá’s Magical Water-Jug Clock hardly seems like an adventure; the young narrator goes to work with his dad on Saturdays. Lucky for us, Jesús, the young boy telling the story, has an active imagination and an infectious sense of adventure. His father is a gardener, and he gets to go with him to work every Saturday where he helps plant, cut grass, and trim trees. The most special job, however, is keeping track of the titular magical water jug. Jesús’ papȧ clues him into its magical timekeeping properties: “When the jug is empty, that means, time to go home.” Jesús is tasked with making sure the water doesn’t spill, but he also has plenty of fun along the way. Trees are scary monsters and sleepy cats are lounging vacationers. He takes all aspects of the family business seriously, from trimming and raking to digging and mowing. The reader can’t help but notice, however, how carefree Jesús is with the water in the jug. He takes a few sips here, a few sips there. He gives it to the little dog in the sweater who must be hot and the peacocks with their giant tails. He even splashes it on his face a few times as the sun gets higher in the sky. When the water jug runs empty, Jesús proudly announces that work is done for the day– at 10:30 AM. It turns out that the magical water-jug isn’t magical at all and they needed that water to last all day. Jesús’ father is understanding and offers a kind pep talk rather than a stern lecture.

Kinkz’ hand drawn illustrations are reminiscent of Chris Raschka of The Hello, Goodbye Window fame (among other titles). The illustrations are loose and fun, with watercolor often spilling out of an item’s defined edges. The characters’ facial expressions have a distinctly cartoon style, with a squiggly curlique nose for Jesús, an angry tree with its tongue sticking out, and bug-eyed peacocks with sunglasses on. Papá’s Magical Water-Jug Clock would be a good book with different illustrations, but Kinkz illustrations really seem like a perfect match for Trejo’s story. I would recommend this book for preschool and early elementary readers.

The Children’s Department staff has compiled a list of suggested titles to complement the “Adventure Begins at Your Library.” Other picture book favorites of mine include Jess Hannigan’s Spider in the Well, a strikingly illustrated modern-day fable about a town called Bad Goodsburg, Adam Rex’s increasingly outlandish picture book On Account of the Gum, and Christoper Denise’s Knight Owl, the tale of a tiny but mighty bird.

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At the start of the COVID lockdown, my then-four year old spent every day either jumping on his trampoline or measuring things. He wanted to know how long the biggest animals were and to measure them in our yard.

We measured the length of a gray whale (90 feet or three school buses). We are lucky to have very nice neighbors because we had to start in their yard and walk back and forth with the tape measure from their lawn to our back fence. He is now eight, but he’s still just as curious about the biggest of the big, the smallest of the small, and everything in between.

One of my most recent favorite nonfiction titles that fits the bill is Marc Majewski’s Bridges. Folks, the title does not disappoint. This book has a lot of bridges in it. What’s more, each bridge shown in the book is contrasted with another bridge with opposing features. The international orange color of the Golden Gate Bridge “stands out” while the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge in India “blends in.” Most pages have simple sentences describing what each bridge is or does (“bridges stand firm” and “bridges swing,” for example).

Majewski’s acrylic illustrations are beautiful while maintaining factual accuracy. They are fun and brightly colored enough to catch the casual viewer’s eye while reading, but they are intricate enough to encourage prolonged viewing. I love that Majewski’s book serves two purposes and can be adapted to various ages. Bridges can serve as a beautiful standalone picture book, great for one-one-one or large group readings. It can also be used to learn more about architecture and engineering, as the endpages include the names and brief descriptions of every bridge shown in the book. My son and I read the story along with the descriptions, flipping back and forth between the story and the descriptions to learn more about each bridge as we read. I appreciate the choice to include the details at the end of the book so the text does not obscure the stunning illustrations.

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The second title I want to share isn’t quite an exploration of big or small, but it offers accessible insight into how humans work. JoAnn and Terrence Deak’s Goodnight to Your Fantastic Elastic Brain is an excellent primer on the developing brain. JoAnn Deak, PhD, is a preventive psychologist and Terrence Deak is a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience. Suffice to say, they know their stuff. Though they are both academics, this elementary nonfiction offering is anything but dry. On the contrary, it’s a fun and engaging read. This is partially due to the cartoon-like illustrations from artist Neely Daggett, but the writing itself is relatable and scaffolded to teach young readers something new based on assumed prior knowledge and lived experiences. The authors promote Goodnight as a “growth mindset” book, and it lives up to that proclamation. I appreciate that it does not rely on platitudes about trying your best (though such sentiments have their place). Instead, it describes the parts of the brain that make you capable of trying again after failing (and the importance of doing so). The book’s primary focus is the role that sleep plays in a developing brain. The authors explain concepts like the prefrontal cortex and how healthy sleep patterns contribute to its ongoing development and help you feel more in control. Daggett’s full-page illustrations perfectly enhance the concepts explained in the book. I would recommend this book as a one-on-one read for an adult and an elementary-aged reader.

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THERE WAS A PARTY FOR LANGSTON, KING O’LETTERS by Jason Reynolds & Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey

Happy February! As we close out Black History Month, I would like to share one of my most recent favorite picture books, which happens to be written by, illustrated by, and about exceptional Black authors.

There Was a Party for Langston, King O’ Letters is the debut picture book by award-winning young adult author Jason Reynolds and illustrator duo Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey. It’s hard to believe that Reynolds, the young adult author phenom, has not written a picture book before now, but it’s no surprise that his first one is as good as it is. He writes in a poetic manner that translates perfectly to the picture book format.

There Was a Party for Langston is also a Caldecott Honoree and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Honoree as of January 2024. These honors are well-deserved because this book is unique, masterfully done, and exciting. Reynolds’ debut picture book honors the Harlem Renaissance poet (and Joplin-born!) Langston Hughes, and it honors him well. As he discusses in the afterword, the author was inspired to write this book after seeing a photo of writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dancing. These esteemed writers (or “word makers” as he calls them) were dancing at a party honoring Hughes at the New York Public Library in Harlem.

There Was a Party for Langston recaps both the events of the party and the events of Hughes’ life as well as the legions of writers and readers he inspired over the years. Reynolds emulates Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers through text that feels energetic and alive, with words stretching across each page, seemingly in motion. For example, when Reynolds describes how Hughes’ words could “[turn] birds into words flying all around him,” he transforms lines from Hughes’ poem “Dream Variation” into the bodies of birds flying toward the sun.

The collaborative nature of the art and the story is top-tier. The Pumphreys’ 50s-inspired comic-style art is beautiful on its own, but the way they bring the text to life and incorporate it into each page is unparalleled. When Reynolds tells of Hughes’ influence on Angelou and he describes her ability to “make the word ‘woman’ seem like the word ‘mountain’,” the Pumphreys paint a woman lying on her side in the shape of a mountain with “woman” across her back in green to look like trees and a stream rolling out in front of her spelling out the words “shine on me.” I can’t imagine a picture book that would honor Hughes more fully while simultaneously being some of both Reynolds and the Pumphrey brothers’ best work. There Was a Party for Langston is a joy to read aloud.

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Favorite Children’s Books of 2023

I am a lover of lists, so the end of the year is an exciting time for me. I want to see everyone’s favorite media in list form all month long, and I will absolutely not pressure myself to read every book on every top 10 list published by every review site, magazine, and newspaper! In preparing to write this review, I thought I would share my own lists of my favorite children’s books of 2023.

Dave Eggers has been one of my favorite writers for almost 20 years because of his wit, fast-paced yet cerebral writing. He writes books for readers of all ages and has dedicated much of his professional life to championing young authors through his work with 826 National, a network of reading and writing centers across the country. He has talked before about workshopping his books with young readers and writers to ensure that they are actually interesting to the readers he wants to reach. Though I do not fall into this demographic, I found his latest offering, The Eyes & The Impossible, to be a wildly fun read with plenty of heart. The book follows Johannes, a beautifully free and wildly fast dog who calls himself the Eyes of the park. Johannes lives in a large city park based on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and he thinks it’s the greatest place in the world. He has the wise Bison whose advice he seeks, and vice versa. He has Sonja the squirrel, Bertrand the seagull, and Angus the raccoon. Together, they help keep the park in order. Together, they avoid animal control and stay far away from humans. When Johannes discovers beautiful paintings at an art show in the park, he becomes transfixed enough to let his guard down. Thus begins a madcap adventure tale that involves escaping from humans, helping out his friends, and learning who to trust. Johannes’ narration feels unique and the story itself feels like an instant classic. Johannes is a very wise dog, but he has only partially true information about the place he lives, which gets him in trouble often. This is a heartwarming adventure story with the right combination of emotion and suspense.

Tara Dairman’s The Girl from Earth’s End was maybe the best children’s book I read this year. As is my preference, it is a pretty emotional read focused on relationships. It follows twelve-year-old Henna, a girl who lives on a remote island settlement called Earth’s End with her parents. The only other person she sees is the monthly delivery person. She spends most of her time in her garden, learning about the various and sundry qualities of the plants there and working to care for them. Soon after her papa Niall falls gravely ill, Henna hears rumors of a mysterious healing plant called nightwalker. She becomes determined to find the plant, capture its elixir and heal her papa. This journey takes her to a botanical boarding school called St. Basil’s Conservatory, where she is away from her parents for the first time ever. While at the school, she makes some important discoveries about herself, friendship, and the important things in life. The Girl From Earth’s End has all the components of a good read: strong character development, intrigue and suspense, emotional highs and lows, and believable and important family and friend relationships.

2023 brought with it many excellent picture books, yet my two favorites are by the same author/illustrator. Let me tell you, Monica Arnaldo was on a roll this year. She knocked it out of the park with Mr. S., a rollicking picture book that she wrote and illustrated. I reviewed this first-day-of-school story in my last column, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say, it is a delightful read and one I think about often.

Arnaldo also partnered with author Melissa Seron Richardson for a Three Kings Day story this year. The Last Slice: A Three Kings Day Treat is a very funny story about a young girl named Marta and her family on the early January holiday. Marta is finally old enough to have a slice of la rosca de reyes, the sweet bread dessert associated with the holiday. She worries, however, about the Niño Dios figurine that is hiding in the cake. What if she accidentally eats the tiny figurine? What if it grows like a seed in her belly and she starts sprouting hair from her ears and nose like Abuelo? Though the bread looks so delicious it makes her mouth water, Marta is determined to avoid the whole thing this year. The Last Slice is a bit strange (in the best way!) but it also feels authentically child-like. Marta is old enough to start asking questions about her family’s holiday traditions, but not old enough to understand the symbolism behind those traditions. Her literal interpretations feel like a familiar plot point for children’s media, but the story feels fresh and new.

Seron Richardson’s text is pun-filled and humorous, and Arnaldo’s illustrations only make it better. The baby figurine is seen on most pages with a wink and smirk, often lounging in a relaxed manner as if to mock Marta. Marta’s facial features are pretty simple (her eyes are circles with brown pupils and her eyebrows are simple lines) but they are especially expressive. You can see the worry in the slant of her eyebrows and the anxiety in the increased wrinkles on her forehead. For those unacquainted with Three Kings Day or its traditions, both author and illustrator include a brief description of the holiday, related symbolism, and individual notes on their associations with the holiday. This is definitely a book I will read again and again. I am looking forward to all the wonderful books that 2024 will surely bring. Until next year!


J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has been told and retold many times over the years, both in print and on screen. Some iterations have been better than others, to be sure (personally, Robin Williams’ Hook is the peak and the animated Disney classic is much further down on the ladder). As an adult, however, my perception of Peter, Tinkerbell, and the Lost Boys has shifted. The women and girls are treated pretty terribly and I frankly find Peter to be pretty insufferable. Nevertheless, it is a cultural touchpoint and the fact that I have so many opinions about Peter Pan proves it.

Tiger Lily and the Secret Treasure of Neverland was published in March 2023 as a media tie-in to the new live-action movie Peter Pan and Wendy, though it is not necessary to have seen the movie before reading the book. The Secret Treasure is a standalone adventure with Tiger Lily and her family and friends in Neverland. In fact, Peter is away in London for most of the story

While the original character of Tiger Lily is reduced to a vague stereotype, modern creators have taken steps to be more thoughtful and nuanced in their depictions. When I saw that award-winning author Cherie Dimaline, who is Métis, was publishing a book about Tiger Lily, I was thrilled. I knew that Tiger Lily would finally be given her due.

Tiger Lily’s family has lived on the island of Neverland for generations. Her grandmother, the matriarch of the family, has taught her everything she knows about riding horses, which plants to use for which ailments, and communicating with and respecting the other inhabitants of the island, including the fairies. Tiger Lily and her best friend, Sashi, who is a fairy, are at the center of this story. 

This standalone adventure follows Tiger Lily as she traverses the island in search of a secret treasure called Andon. When she overhears Peter say that Tiger Lily could use the Andon to better help the people she cares about, she sets out to find out what it is and where she can find it. Along the way, she crosses paths with Jolly and Jukes, two of Captain Hook’s cronies. Though much less intelligent than Hook, they are equally unkind in their dogged pursuit of the same treasure. When they capture Sashi and use her as bait to get the Andon from Tiger Lily, she seeks out the help of four Lost Boys to save her friend. Tiger Lily and the Secret Treasure is a fast-paced, coming-of age adventure story. Tiger Lily is a nuanced character; though it is a fairly short novel, readers witness significant growth by its conclusion. With the elders gone on a fishing trip, Tiger Lily must use her own knowledge and bravery to defeat the pirates and protect the people and places dearest to her. It is through this defeat that she comes to significant realizations about who she is. 

The bigger concept behind the plot is the idea that Tiger Lily, like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, is not sure whether she should grow up. In Neverland, the characters can decide if and when they want to grow up. As Tiger Lily learns more from her grandmother, she realizes that she enjoys caring for others and feels empowered in doing so. However, after failing to help those she loves in the way she wants to, she knows that she must embrace getting older to become who she wants to be. 

In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Dimaline shares a bit about her development of Tiger Lily’s Native identity. Rather than rooting her in a particular tribe or nation, she develops the identity of Neverland’s indigenous inhabitants based on an amalgamation of the original character and the real-life indigenous inhabitants of people who might have lived in the areas where the story takes place. I would recommend this book to readers looking for a good adventure story with a dash of growing up, friendship, family, and fairy dust. 

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“The Night Before Freedom” by Glenda Armand and “Nic Blake and the Remarkables” by Angie Thomas

Summer is here! At the Joplin Public Library, that means the all-ages summer reading challenge has started. Along with that, we have a whole range of events including concerts, magic shows, art programs, STEM workshops, and much more. Our summer reading theme this year is “All Together Now” and we are celebrating kindness, unity, friendship, and community. 

One of the best books I’ve read this year on friendship and community is Angie Thomas’ middle grade debut Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy. I don’t typically go for fantasy or speculative fiction but Thomas’ young adult books are some of my favorites. Her first foray into books for the younger set did not disappoint. This novel follows the aforementioned Nic Blake, a newly-minted twelve year old girl living as a Remarkable (a person with powerful abilities, also known as the Gift) living undercover in an unremarkable Atlanta, Georgia. It’s always just been Nic and her dad; her mom left without a trace when she was little and they have no other family. Anytime someone discovers her family’s abilities, Nic and her dad move off to a new city. Needless to say, it’s hard to make friends. Things finally feel like they are coming together in Atlanta. Nic and her best friend, JP, are immersed in the fandom of a popular book series and her dad is finally going to teach her how to use her abilities on her birthday. But when she turns 12 and her dad stops her from going to the book signing and backs out on teaching her to use her skills, she has to take matters into her own hands. When Nic’s dad is charged with a crime she is sure he didn’t commit, she sets out to clear his name. 

Nic Blake and the Remarkables is fantasy, yes, but it’s also a story about friendship and relationships and the things we do to protect the people we care about. Thomas has created a story that’s both exciting and filled with heart. The action– from the werewolf to the devil’s daughter to the skyscraper-sized dragon– legitimately surprised me and the connections between Nic and her dad, as well as other important characters (no spoilers!) kept me emotionally invested. I think the latter is what I enjoyed most about this book, as I tend to gravitate towards books about family and friendship. I also loved the age-appropriate discussion of civil rights and Thomas’ weaving of African American mythology and fantasy into the fantastical world of the Remarkables. I highly recommend Nic Blake and can’t wait for a sequel. 

I also want to share a new title related to our newest federal holiday, Juneteenth. Gloria Armand and Corey Barksdale’s The Night Before Freedom: A Juneteenth Story is a joyous retelling of the story of Juneteenth or Emancipation Day. Modeled after The Night Before Christmas, this historical picture book instead tells of the freedom won by the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas. The Night Before Freedom begins with a multigenerational family gathering around their matriarch to hear her retelling of her own grandmother’s account of Emancipation Day. 

The story begins with, “‘Twas the night before freedom and all through the South long-whispered rumors had spread, word of mouth.” This is one of the few lines that directly follows the verbiage of the original holiday story, though the cadence matches it throughout. Author Glenda Armand’s story feels digestible for a preschooler or early elementary-aged student, though more could be gleaned from this book with older readers. Many historical picture books tend to be more text-heavy and more appropriate for one-on-one reading with older children. The rhythmic nature of The Night Before Freedom, however, will keep even the youngest listener’s attention. This format does simplify some of the more complex or difficult parts of the history of slavery, but the Library has many other books about Juneteenth and the emancipation of individuals who were enslaved to answer questions for older readers. This book is mostly about joy, and you can feel it in the buzzy excitement of the family gathering around to hear the story as well as the narrator’s exclamations and descriptions of dancing, hugging, and dreams of flying away. 

Illustrator Corey Barksdale’s oil pastel paintings illuminate that joy through the grins of the newly and “forever free” individuals with arms outstretched in praise, joy, and dancing, as well as in the way the family members look at each other with love and care. Barksdale’s illustrations are reminiscent of late 19th-century African American folk art, particularly through the use of bright colors and joyous movement. One of my favorite illustrations comes halfway through the book and features several Black men and women with wings on their back flying toward what appears to be a type of paradise. This page calls to mind the cover of the award-winning collection of folk tales, The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton (to whom Nic Blake’s Angie Thomas dedicates her book). Armand and Barksdale’s The Night Before Freedom is a celebration of freedom, family, love, and community. Although Juneteenth has passed, this would be a worthwhile and enjoyable read year round.

“Elbert in the Air” and “Babble!”

I want to share about two of my favorite new titles in the Children’s Department. The first is the picture book Elbert in the Air by Monica Wesolowska with illustrations by Jerome Pumphrey. I am not sure what I loved more about this book–the breezy, old-fashioned illustrations or the heartwarming story of acceptance and self-love. Elbert’s story begins with the line, “Shortly after he was born, Elbert floated into the air.” This simple line sets the tone and plot of the story very effectively. The text on the first page is accompanied by a happy looking Elbert reaching out to his surprised mother whose arms are also outstretched as if to catch him. As people are wont to do to a new mother, neighbors gather around to offer advice; in this case, the advice consists of methods of catching or containing Elbert. Elbert’s mother simply responds with “If Elbert was born to float, I will let him.” The story carries on in much the same manner, with Elbert floating higher and higher as townspeople offer more and more well-meaning but unhelpful pieces of advice.

Once he is old enough to go to school, Elbert becomes very aware of the fact that he’s different. Throughout the story, his mother continues to vocally support and love him for who he is. She never tries to change him and he does eventually find his people. This is the type of parent I hope to be as my child grows up (though he has not shown any signs of floating–yet!). It feels hopeful to read about a child perceived as different who finds happiness and self-acceptance in a community of their peers. While it would have been a perfectly nice story if it ended with the townspeople accepting Elbert rather than trying to fix him, the actual ending was that much better. There is joy in finding people who are like you, people to whom you don’t need to explain yourself.

I love this book for its illustrations as well. They feel very old-fashioned, reminiscent of the aesthetic and style of the 1950s. Pumphrey paints primarily in soft reds, yellows, blues and greens, with simple, black-lined facial expressions. Though the illustrations are simple, they don’t minimize the story in any way. In fact, they seem to enhance it, giving soft edges to an emotional story.

The second book I would like to share is Caroline Adderson’s Babble! And How Punctuation Saved It. Admittedly, I am a bit of a grammar nerd, but this punctuation parable would be a fun read for anyone. It tells the story of an unnamed stranger who arrives in town with an odd gift– a period. By the time the reader gets to this event, they will likely be begging for it to be inserted into the story. The first several pages are to be read as one long, meandering sentence because, as you will discover, you can’t stop reading unless there is a logical place to do so. Hence, the glorious period. The townspeople are confused at first, though they quickly come to feel grateful for the humble period, the question mark, quotation marks, and exclamation points. They can communicate emotion! They can tell stories! They can take turns talking while doing so!

Adderson brings grammar to life and Roman Muradov’s simple black line drawings, filled in with light reds, add a cartoon strip-like feel that highlights the story’s levity. This treatise on the power of punctuation concludes with an important (though not pedantic) message about listening to and really understanding one another. Babble would be a delightful read aloud for elementary students learning about punctuation or listening skills. It also feels similar in style to B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures, which is beloved by early elementary-aged readers.

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson and Standing in the Need of Prayer by Carole Boston Weatherford and Frank Morrison

Awards season is here — not the Grammys or the Oscars, but the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards.

Every January, the ALA announces the most esteemed books of the previous year published for young readers:

• The Newbery Medal is awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children.

• The Caldecott Medal is awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

• The Coretta Scott King Award Author Award and Illustrator Award are given to an outstanding young adult or children’s book by a Black author and illustrator that reflect the Black experience.

This year, both the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Newbery Medal were awarded to Amina Luqman-Dawson’s “Freewater,” which tells the story of 12-year-old Homer and his sister Ada as they escape from the Southerland plantation.

The children, who were born into slavery, leave in the night with their mother. When their mother is caught, they must figure out how to survive on their own. While escaping deeper into the swamps, they encounter Freewater, a community of formerly enslaved people and freeborn children.

Homer experiences fear and excitement in equal measure. He misses and worries about his mother. Once he realizes she is not following behind, he devotes most of his time to crafting ways to rescue her. At the same time, he and his sister learn swamp survival skills from people like Daria, Solomon, and Sanzi and Juna, freeborn sisters who have only known life in Freewater.

Luqman-Dawson’s immersive world building paints a picture of Freewater through its sounds, its flora and fauna, and its people. Though much of the story is told from Homer’s perspective, readers often hear from Sanzi, as she yearns for adventures outside the swamp community

Freewater, at its core, is a story of freedom and resistance and what a life built on those things can look like.

In her acknowledgments, Luqman-Dawson talks of how little is known of life inside maroon communities. Her imaginings, though, are rooted in anthropological evidence.

The research and work she put into developing the characters and the setting is incredible and essential. Because of Homer, Ada, and the other characters, readers are provided with a more full glimpse of what life was like for both the freeborn and formerly enslaved individuals in these communities.

Flashbacks and the perspective of the slave owner’s daughter bring readers back to the Southerland plantation often. Though the author does not gloss over the horrific nature of slavery, it is presented in a way that will be digestible for upper elementary/early middle school readers.

The Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award was given to Frank Morrison’s “Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Modern Retelling of the Classic Spiritual.” Morrison’s illustrations in this book are incredible.

The cover itself is rife with symbolism and emotion. It shows a young Black girl, her face lifted toward the sky and eyes closed, with her hands raised in prayer. In her Afro, you can see reflectionlike paintings of Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, the March on Washington, a cotton flower and Florence Griffith Joyner.

Morrison uses his illustrations to show vivid depictions of glimpses of African American history. Award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford adapts the classic African American spiritual to include bits of Black history as well, from the “freedmen seeking kin at Emancipation” to “the first Black students walking into all-white classes” and “record-breaking athletes.”

The juxtaposition of the front and back endpapers alone tell the story of both Weatherford’s words and Morrison’s other illustrations throughout the book. The opening pages show a young enslaved person standing on the steps of a ship, hands chained behind their back before a whip-wielding enslaver. Conversely, the back endpapers show a curly-haired Black child, shown a few pages prior, walking into the sunset, protest sign slung over a shoulder with a hand casually placed in a pocket.

My favorite illustrations are the ones that, like the cover, are big, bold, and tell multiple stories or facets of a story at once.

I love the image of athlete-activist Colin Kapernick that takes up nearly an entire page. Its grand yet humanizing qualities call to mind the art of Kadir Nelson, another award-winning Black illustrator.

On the aforementioned double spread, a somber Kapernick looks down at a football field, his Afro taking up three-quarters of the page. In his hair, you can see a smaller reflection of Olympic runner Florence Griffith Joyner in motion.

Overall, “Standing in the Need of Prayer” is a hopeful book. Though it certainly confronts hard history, it does so while looking forward.

Everything in its Place by Pauline David-Sax and Berry Song by Michaela Goade

A young girl discovers the connecting power of books in Pauline David-Sax’s Everything in its Place: A Story of Books and Belonging. Nicky is an introvert who feels most comfortable in the presence of books. She spends her lunch hour shelving books and visiting with the kind librarian.

When Ms. Gillam announces that she’ll be gone at a conference for the week, Nicky’s heart sinks at the idea of spending her recess on the playground. Throughout the week, through conversations with diners at her mom’s cafe and on the playground, she realizes that books can be a way to connect with others and build community.

My librarian heart warmed at the lyricism David-Sax devotes to the Dewey Decimal System. Yes, the 800s (poetry) are a delightful section to visit! But it’s not just the organization of information that sets my heart aflutter. It’s the delicately descriptive way Nicky observes the playground, the patrons at her mother’s cafe, and the camaraderie amongst the very cool all-female biker crew that visits.

Illustrator Charnelle Pinkney Barlow melds hand drawn illustrations with cut paper scraps (including old library borrowing and catalog cards) to emphasize the power of books to make a person feel less alone. Hand-drawn flowers appear at the bottom of the pages as the books go along, offering gentle visual cues of Nicky’s blooming. With its myriad opportunities for conversation and extension activities, Everything In its Place would be a great classroom or one-on-one read aloud.

In my second pick, a young Tlingit girl goes berry picking with her grandmother near the sea, learning about and thanking the earth in the process. In her newest picture book Berry Song, Caldecott medalist Michaela Goade brings the Alaskan landscape to life through a conversation with a young girl and her grandmother. The unnamed protagonist describes the berry picking process and takes care to name and show each berry. Theis evident on her face as she names the berries in song. These names (“Salmonberry, cloudberry, blueberry, nagoonberry” and others) act as the bridge and her grandmother’s gentle reminders of gratitude are the chorus.

Goade’s illustrations are lushly painted with greens, reds, and blues. The water is vibrant, with white highlights bringing the water to life. The green of the trees and leaves blends into the animals and people, driving home the message that, as the narrator says, “the land is a part of us.” Berry Song is a book to read again and again.

The book ends with an author’s note about life in Sitka, Alaska, as well as Tlingit values and the importance of berry picking. Goade gives gentle advice about connecting with the land by thanking it for what it gives us and by learning the name of the plants and animals that grow where we live.

I love books that boost confidence and make you feel less alone. Books that empower kids and remind them of their unique characteristics have become more common in recent years. Kids should be listened to as they discover themselves and validated as they learn to deal with big emotions, and I think both of these books do so in different ways. Berry Song acknowledges the important role a child can play as a steward of the earth and a member of a family. Everything in its Place reminds kids that they don’t have to handle big feelings on their own and they can find solace in a book or a like-minded friend. The Children’s Department has many picture books focusing on self-esteem and actionable ways to care for our planet. We also have many picture books by Native authors, like Michaela Goade, that highlight the past and present of Indigenous people in the Americas.

Find Everything in its Place: A Story of Books and Belonging in our catalog.

Find Berry Song in our catalog. 

Back to School Picture Books

For most area kids, school starts this week. In light of that, I would like to share a few of my favorite back-to-school picture books.

My first two titles feature the unofficial symbol of going back to school: the school bus. Grant Snider’s One Boy Watching takes a quiet approach, following the first bus rider of the day as he rides from his country home to school. As he rides, the sun rises, with the colored pencil-sketched sky going from dark blue to purple to red and then, finally, to yellow. The text is minimal, an effect that matches the quiet scene through the window. As he gets closer to town, more houses appear and the bus fills up. Finally, at ten ‘til eight, the boy arrives at school. Both the text and the illustrations strongly evoke the quiet of the early morning, making this a soothing bedtime read in preparation for the real thing.

Find One Boy Watching in our catalog. 

My second bus-related title may feature the same mode of transportation, but the similarities end there. Josh Lieb and Hannah Marks’ The Monster on the Bus is an interactive read along that will not help anyone calm down before bed. On the contrary, this slapstick take on “The Wheels on the Bus” will make the audience giggle and give them much to talk about afterward. The book begins tamely, with brown-skinned Angelique waiting for the bus with her mom and waving to a friend. After the first verse of the song, however, the situation becomes increasingly outlandish. Subsequent verses include a hungry monster, an evil villain, a wizard, and a ride through outer space. Eventually, the children band together and demand to be taken to school. Marks’ monsters are cute instead of scary, and the cartoonish illustrations lend to the book’s humorous tone. What a ride.

Find The Monster on the Bus in our catalog. 

One of my favorite back to school books is Derrick Barnes and Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s 2019 title The King of Kindergarten. Thankfully, the self-esteem boosting book has a sequel of sorts just in time for the ‘22-23 school year. The Queen of Kindergarten follows MJ Malone, a young Black girl, as she hypes herself up for the first day of school. She is all confidence as she gets ready, and her mom deftly channels that confidence into a list of “royal duties.” A queen brightens every room, her mom tells her. A queen is always kind, caring, and helpful to others. As MJ goes throughout her day, tiara proudly atop her head, she seeks out opportunities to cheer up new friends, help classmates, and find joy in the small moments. Whether or not your kindergartener is as confident as MJ, they will likely walk away with lessons on kindness and the fun that can be had at kindergarten. Brantley-Newton’s illustrations, as ever, exude joy. Her use of bright colors and ability to portray love between characters affirms Barnes’ joyful story. The Queen of Kindergarten would be an excellent solo read or group read aloud for any child.

Find The Queen of Kindergarten in our catalog.